RACE day on June 4 is looming for participants in the Cork City Marathon and inaugural 10km challenge. If you are one of the entrants, you might have put in most of the miles necessary for your body, but have you prepared your mind?
Running is about much more than simply putting one foot in front of the other and if you allow nerves, anxiety, and stress about finishing to get the better of you, your performance — and enjoyment — on the day will suffer.
“A lot of people say that running a marathon is 90% mental,” says the sports psychologist Dearbhla McCullough who has worked with elite Irish runners and Olympians. “That’s not strictly true and having a positive mindset won’t make up for physical training, but ensuring your mind is ready will hugely influence the outcome of an event in many ways.”
Even experienced runners can find they are plagued with panic before the big day. “Having a marathon run undone by mental demons such as doubt and anxiety before you even start can happen to anyone, myself included even though I have completed countless marathons,” says John Brewer, professor of sport at the University of the West of Scotland and author of Run Smart: Using Science To Improve Performance (Bloomsbury). “The prospect of running any distance can become overwhelming.”
Cork City Marathon race director Eamon Hayes says his team has ensured there is plenty to motivate runners on the day. “We have DJs at the three-mile point of the 10k and near to the end of the full marathon distance and are planning a series of cheer zones to help people when they are flagging,” he says.
“Research has shown that these sorts of strategies can really help to distract runners if they are beginning to feel the pain or struggle with the monotony.”
And his advice to first-time runners is to soak up the atmosphere. “If you haven’t taken part in an event before, then forget about running fast times and enjoy the experience,” says Mr Hayes. “If you are a regular runner looking for fast times, then the 10km route is super-flat and guaranteed to bring a good number of personal-best times.”
Still, it helps to develop a marathon mindset that will not let you down when the going gets tough. We asked leading experts for their top tips to ensure your mind is as well prepared as your body when you hit the road.
If you haven’t done this already, now is the time. If you have a goal time in mind, consider tweaking it based on current training and performance. “Your preparation might have gone exactly to plan, better or worse than you predicted several months ago when you entered the Cork City Marathon or 10k, but however it has gone it is a good thing to re-visit your expectations before getting on the start line,” Ms McCullough says.
“Work out what finishing time you are capable of achieving and then a strategy of easy slow pacing during the early and mid-stages of the event so that you don’t go too fast at the start.”
Be realistic rather than over-ambitious. “Most people suffer because they start off too fast, so having a sound plan in mind will be very reassuring,” she says.
Visualisation is a trick used by elite runners, but it can work just as effectively for you.
“Picturing yourself running and crossing the line in front of hundreds of spectators can be very powerful,” Prof Brewer says.
“In the next few days, as you ease off on your running prior to the Cork City events, use visualisation as a powerful motivational tool and a reminder of the sacrifices you have made over the past few months to get yourself in shape and ready to run.”
The time and effort you have spent training can go to pot if you pitch up without a clue what you are doing on race day, says Martin Yelling, running coach and author of Running in The Mid-Pack. “When you have thought everything through, you will be more able to stay calm, to focus your attention on the race, to give your energy to running, to execute your plan and to flex to work with any wobbles,” Mr Yelling says.
“That means preparing your pre-run nutrition, knowing how you will get there, where the start and finish lines are, the route and course maps and where drinks stations are located.”
Control all the things you can control, including how you eat, how much sleep you have in the nights leading up, and how much time you spend on your feet, Mr Yelling says.
“Get the practical stuff sorted and you will feel much more relaxed about the run itself.”
Focusing too much on breathing patterns or how tired you feel can have a negative effect on your running economy. “It’s a bit like being a seasoned driver when you perform actions like changing gear, braking, and looking in the mirror without conscious thought and the moment you try to focus more attention on it, things feel more complicated,” says Sam Murphy, running coach and author of Run Your Best Marathon (Bloomsbury).
“My advice is to tune out for most of the race, focusing on crowds, other runners, the atmosphere and letting your legs carry you without too much thought,” she says.
Then, every mile or two, do a quick body scan. “Imagine you have an X-ray machine making a tour of your body from head to toe looking for energy wasters like clenched fists, tight shoulders, a heavy foot strike or slumped posture,” she says. “This can alert you to obvious faults that you can address to make your running feel more comfortable and fluid.”
At some stage the race is probably going to feel uncomfortable. You might feel tired, breathless, sore and achy.
“Remember that you are still in control when this happens and that unless you have hit the wall, which means your body’s stores of carbohydrates and energy are spent, you have probably experienced it before,” says Ms McCullough.
In most cases, the discomfort will pass but have a comeback strategy if it doesn’t.
“Adjust expectations and goals if things really do not go to plan,” Ms McCullough says.
“All is not lost.”
Soak in the atmosphere and smile at the support along the route — it could make all the difference to your running.
It certainly worked for Eliud Kipchoge, the holder of the world record for the marathon, who smiles through his race and says he believes it eases him to the finish line. But how?
Sports scientists from Ulster University asked 24 recreational runners to alternately grin and grimace as they ran while measuring their running or how much oxygen they used at given speeds. Results showed they were up to 2.78% more efficient when they had a grin on their face, likely a result of a “reduction in muscular tension” all over the body, says Noel Brick, a lecturer in sport and exercise psychology at Ulster University, who led the study.
When the going gets tough try swearing. Psychologists at Keele University reporting in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology last year found that swearing can increase self-confidence and boost physical strength. What’s more, the humorous side of swearing was shown to be an important psychological outlet, akin to “letting go” of anxiety.
“Swearing appears to produce a state of ‘hot cognitions’ helping us downplay fears and concerns and this can lead to benefits in some situations, such as physical strength,” says Dr Richard Stephens, a senior lecturer in psychology and lead author of the report.
Swearing to yourself can add an element of humour to pain for some people and that, says Dr Stephens, is what might just spur you on when the going gets tough.