Calling all Marathon Runners! Tips for your race - An Evidence-Based Approach

Calling all Dublin City Marathon Runners! Here at the Irish Research Council, we believe that excellent research is crucial to success. To support all the runners taking part in this Sunday’s race, Dr. Tadhg MacIntyre, Lecturer in Sport, Exercise and Performance Psychology at the University of Limerick, has provided some evidence-based tips to help you prepare for and endure those 26.2 miles.

Tips for Marathon Runners - An Evidence-based Approach

The Dublin City Marathon provides an opportunity for thousands to take on the challenge of running 26 miles and 385 yards on the streets and thoroughfares of our capital city. Ironically participants will, in all likelihood, follow a route they may have already run many times in the mind’s eye.

Before the marathon, it is natural that a considerable emphasis is placed upon achieving a state of physical preparedness for the challenge, but it is also pivotal that one engages in adequate psychological preparation. For many, the marathon will constitute the longest distance ever completed, thus it is imperative that runners maintain an appropriate mind-set to face the challenge.

A variety of psychological techniques have been shown to be efficacious in aiding psychological readiness ahead of an endurance exercise of this nature. Brick et al. (2015) showed that the use of a mental skills training program, including the use of visualisation or mental imagery, before and during the completion of endurance exercise, yielded positive results in terms of participant competitive performance in an endurance task. Similarly, goal setting can be useful to divide the race into manageable chunks with loose targets for each sector (e.g. 5k). Stringent targets may impair performance as goals need to be flexible enough to account for the terrain (e.g. incline) and weather conditions (e.g. wind). Combining imagery with achievement goals may be motivating, but a more realistic strategy is to use imagery to generate what-if scenarios and develop a coping response for a particular issue (e.g. imagine how you will cope with running on an open section with a headwind).

Managing your Physical and Emotional Resources

Another psychological factor which has been shown to influence performance is that of mental fatigue prior to the completion of endurance exercise (Marcora et al., 2009). Thus it would be advisable that those competing in a marathon attempt to minimise base levels of mental fatigue prior to the race. It has been recently proposed that prolonged endurance activities may enhance mental fatigue levels (Brick et al., 2016a), which, if already elevated pre-race, could lead to a considerable performance drop off.

Adequate preparation can be undermined by an individual’s inability to appropriately manage their physical and emotional resources during the course of the race itself. Pacing is a vital factor in the completion of the distance efficiently. Athletes must regulate their speed and power output in order to attain optimal performance levels. The focus of attention during endurance activities can have a considerable influence upon perceived effort and performance and recent research has suggested that situational factors may be most influential when attempting to adopt the most appropriate attentional strategy (Brick et al., 2015). Runners may benefit from using the pacemakers available in the Dublin marathon and pacing reduces cognitive fatigue and stress from over-monitoring (Brick et al., 2016b).

In order to adopt a situationally appropriate attentional strategy, a competitor must possess both a knowledge of domain-specific cognitive strategies, and cognitive control, i.e. the capability to manage their thoughts and actions in line with their behavioural goals (MacIntyre et al., 2014; Robertson et al., 2015). Cognitive control is said to manifest itself in two distinct modes: proactive and reactive control, each of which are required throughout the course of a marathon. Metacognition, the ability to think about thinking, is a crucial part of this self-regulation process. Metacognitive skills (e.g. planning, monitoring and reviewing throughout the performance) and metacognitive experiences (e.g. monitoring feelings and making judgements about the effectiveness of the cognitive strategies being deployed) have been suggested to be essential to the self-regulatory process (Brick et al., 2015).

The planning dimension allows a competitor to establish a pace and minimise distraction, while the monitoring component enables an individual to identify issues and adopt the appropriate response thus ensuring an appropriate coping strategy. This can be employed throughout the race and the focus of attention is maintained upon the appropriate aspect of performance (Brick et al., 2016). So the advice is to regularly switch attention from external cues (mile-markers etc.) to internal cues (how does my body feel). Periodically checking in to see how your body is feeling at a given level of effort is ideal. Monitoring either our body’s response or our pace consistently is mentally demanding and fatiguing.

Being Mindful of Hitting the Wall

“Hitting the Wall” (HTW), a competitive episode which is comprised of both psychological and physiological symptoms is said to generally occur around the 19 mile marker, and be experienced by 43% of elite and non-elite marathon runners (Buman et al., 2008). Higher rates of reported HTW are noted among males and those who approached the race with an expectation of HTW.

Schuler and Langen’s (2007) study demonstrated the moderating effect of positive self-talk, in the form of self-encouragement (“You can do it”) and self-calming statements (“Stay cool” and “think of nothing”) upon the impact of the wall in marathon performance. A compelling case can be made for the use of positive self-talk as a coping mechanism which can assist in helping one emerge from a psychological and physiological crisis mid-marathon and see the race through to completion.

After the Race

Post-race thoughts and emotions have a powerful influence on subsequent motivation to compete. First time marathon runners have a big opportunity to improve on their next outing and focusing on how you accomplished the goal of finishing and the sense of achievement should supersede other goals. The marathon is a challenge, and for almost everyone the word finisher should have significant meaning.