Mind over Matter

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Your brain does not want you to run a marathon. It knows that you’re wasting precious energy reserves. It knows that the longer you spend running the more your muscles will be damaged. It knows that if you then encounter a saber-tooth tiger, you will be unable to outrun it and will be eaten – which will be bad.

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Your mind will play tricks on you to save you from that saber-tooth tiger. It will make your legs feel like lead 3/4 of the way into a long run. It will make you not want to take another step. It will make you want to curl up by the roadside to hide from that saber-tooth tiger. Just knowing that much is the start of being able to get past what your mind is telling you; next you have to start to believe it and that’s where the long runs come into it. As you get to the late stages of training, then you’ll be starting long runs with a lot of fatigue on your legs, they will feel hard, probably harder than the marathon at times, but in those moments, twenty something kilometers into a long run, when home seems far far away, and nothing appeals less than carrying on running those are the moments when you need to focus. You need to carry on and bank that memory. And when you get through it, then you have another memory put away that you can fall back on next time; knowing that you can carry on and that your mind is just playing tricks on you and that your legs will get you to the end of that run.

Of course, it’s all very well saying just carry on and it’ll be easier next time. But how do you actually do it? Well, there are a number of techniques. The first and most common one is chunking. Now, I’ve heard many people talk about a marathon as only eight 5k runs, but quite frankly a 5k run is a decent length run and that seems like a lot of them! Not to mention that when you do eight 5k runs you’ve still got another 2.1 k before you finish a marathon… So personally, I try not to think about distance, times or milestones early in a run. I like to only like to start thinking about that after the halfway mark.

For me, the halfway mark is a good solid point because you know, you’ve done more than half. From there I can start to break up the rest of the race into sections. Now ticking off miles or kilometers is an obvious choice, but at marathon distance even at halfway another 21k is quite a lot of kilometers to count through. So, what do I do instead of chunking into kilometers or chunking a whole race?

Well, At the start. I like to take in my surroundings, I like to take in the atmosphere and at Marathon distance, even towards the front of the pack, you’ll find that very few people are running so fast that they can’t talk; so chat to people – there will be a lot of people on that course will be happy to chat.

Also, before the race look at the course map, look at the significant points on it, note some landmarks, look at what you’re going to see on the course so that as they come up you can spot them and have a feel for how far through you are and then look forward to the next thing that you’re interested in seeing.

At some point though chatting, taking in the surroundings and looking for landmarks, just won’t cut it. And at this point often around 20 miles, I’ll start to use other techniques; counting down kilometer marks or miles or picking smaller milestones; like getting to a particular tree or lamp post and then picking the next one to get to. But my favorite is counting breaths. How many breaths will I take for each kilometer? Then I’ll not count off one kilometer of breaths. Then I count the next one and it gives me a feel for how close it’s getting to that next kilometer mark.

Another thing that keeps me going is to find a runner slightly ahead of me and just try and keep pace with them. If they can do it, I can do it and keep telling yourself that and keep them in sight. Obviously, this works rather less well if they then collapse by the side of the road, but hopefully that won’t happen.

I also like to spend some of my marathon time focusing on what my body’s doing. Clearly it’s running; but how is it running? Are my feet landing nicely under me? Are they nice light steps or am I stomping along like an elephant? Am I still driving the ground backwards or is the ground stopping me every time I land on it? Then I work up my body from my feet. Is my core nice and solid? Are my hands and arms relaxed? Are my shoulders down? Is my head gently lifted? All of these things a good checklist to work through to make sure you’re running nice and efficiently and it will take your mind off whatever distance is left to run.

And my final tip for those last few kilometers might seem a little odd but it’s very much proven to work and it comes back to using your subconscious. What you do is; you smile. When you smile you tell your brain that everything’s okay and things are going well. And there are a lot of studies out there that show that smiling actually reduces the feeling of pain.

So, hopefully these tips will get you through a marathon and you’ll be able to practice them on the long runs. And when you get to those last few km of the marathon just smile!

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