Inside the Mind of a Marathon Runner

Physical endurance isn't everything; mental toughness is what really brings runners to the end of a race. Click to enlarge this image. Corbis Images
Corbis Images

To reach the finish line at the New York City Marathon, training the mind is just as important as exercising the muscles.

In the months leading up to this weekend's New York City marathon, most of the event's 47,000 runners have trained their bodies, planned their carbo-loading schedules, and picked out the shoes and moisture-wicking layers that work best for them.

To get across the finish line, though, athletes will also need to have cultivated mental toughness that will help them cope with the pain, fatigue and misery that are sure to strike at various points along the course.

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Many long-distance athletes naturally develop strategies for resisting the urge to quit. But the best competitors take extra care to train their brains, focusing on their minds as much as they do on their other muscles.

"The signal to slow down is hardwired, and there's good reason for it when you're running out of energy and the body is burning more fuel than it can give to the brain," said Andy Lane, a sports psychologist at the University of Wolverhampton in the United Kingdom.

The key to success in endurance endeavors, he said, "is learning to ignore that signal and replace it with something else."

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Mental training begins with the very first step of an exercise program, especially for people who are athletic novices, said Greg Whyte, an endurance athlete, coach and cardiovascular physiologist at Liverpool John Moores University in the U.K. He has successfully trained British celebrities to complete long-distance feats, like waterskiing across the English Channel and running 43 marathons in 50 days.

First comes commitment to a goal. Then comes confidence that builds gradually as an athlete learns to cope with ever-longer bouts of arduous exercise.

One of the most common and successful strategies for enduring discomfort is to compartmentalize an overall goal into much smaller goals.

Ironman competitors, for example, do well to avoid dwelling on the overwhelming idea of 12 long hours of swimming, biking and running. Instead, it can be helpful to think of each leg separately and from there, to break down each sport into manageable increments of time or numbers of strokes, pedals and footsteps.

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Whyte is an ex-Olympian who competed for years as an elite pentathlete. He has also completed Ironman triathlons and the cycling Race Across America. He has also swum across the English Channel and the Strait of Gibraltar, among other achievements.

Some of his toughest moments have come while swimming in cold open water. "It is insidious; the misery is very difficult to escape," he said. "Just by making small steps and stepwise increases as you go through training, you realize that what at the beginning seemed utterly daunting and impossible. You're still miserable. It's still difficult but you've created a technique so that you can cope with it."

For some people, Lane said, it can also help to use imagery. They may mentally rehearse how they want to perform, for example. Or, in the case of a cyclist, they may imagine something like the rotation of a steam train's wheel with each push of the pedals.

When imagery fails, self-induced distraction can make a big difference. Whyte worked with one athlete who sang entire ABBA albums to himself while swimming across the English Channel. Likewise, many ultra-athletes use "self-talk," an inner dialog that can take their focus off of the pain and apply it instead to being in the moment, allowing them to enter what some call a state of "flow."

Patience, acceptance, breaking large goals into smaller ones: Many of the skills that prove useful in endurance training turn out to be helpful life lessons that apply to writing books, running businesses and other endeavors, experts said. Long-distance athletes often end up being organized and successful in other areas of their lives, as well.

As crazy as their athletic accomplishments seem to people who prefer to enjoy their sports with nachos on the couch, many athletes also develop addictions, or at least the desire to do more once they've finished their latest event.

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It's not necessarily that they enjoy the suffering they endure over the course of a race, Lane said. Instead, what keeps athletes coming back for more is the buzz they get from accomplishing a goal that they've worked toward for a long time. That's especially true when it comes to a major event like the New York City Marathon, which bonds together hundreds of thousands of people, both in the race and on the sidelines.

"You're anticipating happiness while enduring great feats of pain," he added. "In the same way a mother [in labor] expects a baby to come out, the end justifies the means."

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