by Dr. Kate Hays
It’s the day before your first marathon and you’re wondering: What on earth have I gotten myself into, anyway? Good question!
I hope you’ve done your training, whether with a running group, an online running coach, or careful attention to a running clinic-type training program. Marathons—and half-marathons—have become increasingly popular. Last year, nearly ½ a million completed a marathon in the U.S. Among other things, that means that some people will think: “If so many people are doing it, I can too.” Which may well be true…if you train sufficiently.
But this isn’t really an article about the physical elements of training; it’s about the psychological aspects. What are you thinking? How well are you mentally prepared for this race? What are you saying to yourself? How do you maintain just the right amount of psychic energy for these 26.2 miles?
Inspired by a “Psych Team” that assisted runners at the start line of the New York City Marathon, I brought the idea to Toronto in 1999…and the Toronto Marathon Psyching Team was born.
It’s now twelve Toronto Marathons later. This (all volunteer) Team is about 40 members strong, comprising psychologists, sport psychologists, and other mental health professionals as well as some graduate students in these fields. We offer mental strategies to runners before (Expo, Carbo Dinner, and race start); during (“Psychs on Bikes” and “Psychs on Foot”) and after (med. tent and physio/massage tent) the race. For more details, check out http://www.torontomarathon.com/psychingteam.shtml
Of course, there was the young woman I spoke with who had run 18 miles—over the course of a week, that is. Rosie, as I’ll call her, was at the marathon, persuaded by her friend Nancy, a long-time runner. We talked about their different goals: Although I encouraged Nancy to run for time, if not companionship, I suggested that Rosie focus on how far she might get—whether running or walking. Her training certainly didn’t suggest that she’d quite make it to the finishing line.
So, how do you get psyched for a marathon? Lots of ways. Let me share five with you now, suggestions that I would make to a “Rosie” or a “Nancy”:
- Set challenging but realistic goals for yourself. Very often, the goals we set are either/or: either I finish in X time or I’m a total failure. I encourage runners to set three levels of goals for themselves: “great” (that’s usually the either/or goal); “good”; and “I could live with myself if….”
For Rosie, these goals might look like: completing the race (and even that might not be realistic); running/walking 10 miles; using this race as a benchmark and learning experience.
For Nancy, perhaps it’s: completing the race in X time; completing the race in X+5 minutes; completing the race in X+7 minutes.
Or maybe Nancy’s goal has nothing to do with time. Perhaps her goal is to spend a few hours being physically active with her good friend Rosie, in the midst of others who are doing likewise.
- Know the race course as completely as you can, so that you can plan your race strategy. Depending on your level of training, your intentions for this race, your health, and various other factors, this will include such things as plans regarding pace, hill management, and affirmations. Remember to plan—and stick with your plan—to go out at a pace that will allow you to complete the race!
If Rosie actually sees what the race course looks like, she can recognize just how much effort it will take—and be impressed with each kilometer that she masters.
Nancy will be able to work more on actual race strategy. But Nancy may well feel responsibility for Rosie, so she’ll need to decide how she wants to manifest that: will they run together? Will they plan exactly where they’ll meet at the end?
- How much tension is good for you? Before the race? During the race? Know how to regulate both your tension and your thoughts. Here, Rosie may be at an advantage—she doesn’t know enough to get tense! She’s handling it kind of like the lark that it is for her—some of that attitude is probably useful for everyone. Nancy will be able to use diaphragmatic breathing to calm her jitters and keep the energy she needs for this undertaking.
- Use imagery before and during the race, whether it’s imagining an invisible rope attached to that person in front of you, gradually pulling you forward, or the way you want yourself to feel at strategic points during the race. Rosie might use imagery that reminds her of other times and situations where she’s felt strong and capable, or playful and energized. Nancy may recall other great runs; perhaps she’ll bring to the race an image of a sleek panther whose smooth stride helps hers feel effortless.
- Write out a list of every possible reason you can think of that you’re running this particular race. You’ve trained really hard and well. This upcoming performance moment is all yours. You’ll want to have that list in your mind’s eye, so that you can celebrate: Yes, this is what I’ve gotten myself into!