It runs through your mind…

Dr Raj Per­saud says the marathon run­ner’s wall might be mainly men­tal

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Wellbeing -

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

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