It runs through your mind…
Dr Raj Persaud says the marathon runner’s wall might be mainly mental
T here is one thing that will be going through most competitors’ minds as they prepare for tomorrow’s London Marathon − hitting the dread “wall”. This is the moment when every sinew in your body screams out that you must stop. The pain feels all too real, yet sports physiologists and psychologists now believe that this dreaded phenomenon, which usually strikes somewhere around mile 20, is probably just as much mental as it is physical.
These days, elite athletes devote increasing attention to preparing their mind before and during a big race. But the cutting-edge psychological techniques they employ could be of as much benefit to those simply hoping to get round as they are to those aiming for a record time.
Mental grounding for an event like the marathon should be divided into two phases − the training or preparation for the race and the marathon itself.
Clearly, with less than 24 hours to the starter’s pistol, the training phase is now over, although it can still be useful to gather information from other runners who have tackled marathons.
For race day itself, there are two basic strategies: focus on yourself and your performance (breathing, stride length, heart rate), or distract yourself with something completely outside the race (perhaps planning a wonderful holiday).
Ideally, you should have a mental race plan which has been rehearsed during your training runs. The latest psychological research suggests that you may need to switch focus, depending on what you encounter during the race itself.
Avoid being destabilised by the presence of so many other runners, which may be a new experience after months of solitary training. A useful tip is to focus on one runner who appears to be going at your own pace and ignore those who are passing you.
Finally, it’s often helpful to break the race down into a series of more immediate targets, rather than dwelling on how far away the finish line is. See yourself as passing a succession of finishing lines during the race and allow yourself to experience some elation each time. Such a strategy can often help runners find their way to the final straight.
Dr Raj Persaud is consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital, Kent, and Gresham Professor for Public Understanding of Psychiatry.
Toe path: marathon runners cross Tower Bridge