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Mental Training for the Marathon

By Ernest Joseph

Proper physical, nutritional and psychological training leads to a peak marathon performance. For most of us, marathon is a way to test our ability to push beyond the limits. The mind can have a great influence in pulling our body beyond its limits. But the mind can also have a great influence in pulling our body away from our abilities and force us into disappointing performance. Such negativity may cause us to believe we are not capable of executing our game plan.

So how to really train our mind for a marathon? It is only logical that if the runner encounters adversities during training runs and trains mind to handle the adversity, then the runner can apply that training effectively during the race. I find the following steps useful in mental training for a marathon.

Sticking with the goal – If you have decided to run a marathon, then run it. Barring injury, there is no plan B as far as to run or not to run. This commitment not only motivates the runners out of the bed for training during cold winter and hot-humid summer days, but also trains their minds to believe that the decision to run the upcoming marathon is non-negotiable. If the training was not good enough to achieve the goal that was set up at the beginning of the training program, then run within the limitation. This is the fundamental step to the mental training. This develops a positive attitude throughout training period and when the going gets tough in the race, the mind will be focused on how to finish and not on whether to finish.

Sticking with the training schedule – If today is the training day of the week, then train. If the weather is extreme, modify the training but do not modify the schedule. This commitment to training will train the runner’s mind to run with confidence if the marathon day brings rain, cold, hot or humid weather.

Understanding and accepting the marathon associated pain– 2:08:00 or 8:02:00 marathoners will be left with common phenomenon of fatigue and inflammation of the joints at the end of a marathon. This is a normal physiological phenomenon associated with prolonged exercise such as marathon, so accept it. It is the ability to overcome or deal with the pain at this point in the race that will be the difference between peak and mediocre performance. Pain is part of the marathon. Deal with it in the training and get it out of the system.

Dealing with the pain – An optimal pace will help achieve peak performance. An above-optimal effort will produce lactic acid build-up faster than the body can break it down, resulting in fatigue and pain. But if running at optimal pace were as simple as it sounds, runners would never encounter “the wall” during the marathon. The wall is a state of mind as well as a state of body. As the pace slows and running becomes more difficult, the mind has a tendency to worry and focus on negative possibilities. When runners begin to panic and the fatigue escalates, soon the word "stop" enters their mind. That's "the wall." During long training runs when pain and fatigue set in towards the end, try not to fight it, but accept it and continue running. This will train the mind to relax rather than panic at the onset of pain, and relaxed mind will provide positive attitude. Psychologists say that the left side of the brain, which is the logical side, comes to life when we are under stress. It can come up with a million reasons why we do not want to continue. But if we can relax during this initial stage, the right side of the brain; which is full of creative solutions to almost any problem the left side can come up with, gets a chance. If the runner can just relax and accept the situation, the right brain can take over and get the mind off of those tight muscles, fatigue and negative left-brain messages.

Maintaining the positive thinking – Once relaxed and accepting of the situation, find ways to stay positive. Draw positive energy from the surrounding. During training, take the mind off the fatigue and pain by talking with the running partner about positive things. If going solo, visualize positive and inspirational thoughts. But the important thing is; during the training run when the going gets tough, keep going because this is the most valuable mental training you will ever receive on the pain management. During the race, feed on the crowd’s support. Get involved with the crowd. Read those inspirational signs on the course. And if you ever encounter the wall, please remember that walls do have windows.

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