Distraction and Monitoring – The Psychology of Running a Marathon

By Rick Morris

Marathon running isn’t just a physical test, there is also a psychology of running a marathon. Running a marathon is as much a mental exercise as a physical one. Of course it takes a lot of training to build your endurance up to the point that you can run 26.2 miles. Your muscles and joints take a lot of stress over those miles, but your brain also takes a beating. It’s takes a lot of mental toughness to ignore the screams of your muscles begging you to quit. In fact, it’s now believed that a great deal of running fatigue, especially during long events like a marathon, originates with your brain rather than your physical body.

It’s thought that your central nervous system (CNS) acts as “switching station” that monitors the condition of your muscles, the homeostasis of your body and even keeps track of how far you have to run. It then “doles out” energy in a way that will keep your body in balance and still allow you to meet your goal.

Your CNS takes those actions on it’s own without any conscious effort from you. Fortunately, you are still able to override the signals from your CNS. That is why you are able to increase your pace when you see the finish line of your marathon even though you are almost completely exhausted. There are also mental techniques you can use to take your minds attention off the fatigue and pain you are feeling or focus completely on your body so you can make appropriate adjustments to your stride or strategy. One of those techniques is disassociation.

Disassociation is basically the skill of turning your mind and focus to positive thoughts rather than focusing on the marathon and your feelings of fatigue. Disassociation can be turned either inward or outward. With inward dissociation you may use imagery to imagine yourself floating easily along the course or you may imagine yourself in a different environment altogether.

Maybe relaxing in a Zen state on some deserted island beach. Outward disassociation is focusing on some part of the external environment and mentally distancing yourself from your running and your fatigue. You may concentrate on the sites and smells of the race or the scenery flowing by. One common form of outward disassociation is to focus on some point in the distance and simply run to it without thinking about your body or the race.

Disassociation is a good technique for mentally putting up a wall between you and your fatigue, but there are times when that just isn’t a good idea. At some point you need to be fully aware of your pace, your hydration levels, the condition of your muscles, course conditions and your competitors. That’s where association comes in. As you probably have already figured out, inward association is focusing on your pace, your stride and the condition of your body.  Outward association is concentrating on course conditions, mile markers and your competitors.

I have never liked the terms disassociation and association because they are rather imprecise and can be confusing. A number of years ago, in 1998, CD Stevinson and SJ Biddle completed a study on cognitive orientations in marathon running. In the course of the study they came up with four much more descriptive terms that I like much better – Inward monitoring to describe focusing on pace, thirst, fatigue, muscle condition and how your body feels; outward monitoring for concentrating on race strategy, fluid stations, course conditions, etc.; inward distraction for focusing on imagery, daydreams, meditation; and outward distraction for concentrating on the scenery, spectators and the environment.

All of those four techniques are valuable skills that can be used at various times. The trick is when to use which technique. I believe that the best technique to use depends upon where you are in the race. The best technique at the start may not be the wise method in the final miles. Here are my recommendations for choosing your cognitive technique.

Miles 1 through 6

Both inward and outward distraction would probably be a poor choice in the early miles. You need to carefully monitor your pace and get into a good race rhythm early in your race. If you are distracted you may end up running too fast, which will cause problems later in your race. The best technique would be to use of both inward and outward monitoring. Pay close attention to your pace, your stride, the mile markers and the condition of the course. Don’t forget that marathons are supposed to be enjoyable. Use outward monitoring to take in the sights and sounds of the marathon – enjoy yourself.

Miles 7 through 17

The middle miles of your race can make or break your marathon. You need to be very careful to stay on pace to meet your finishing time goal. Keep using both inward and outward monitoring so you are fully aware of your pace, where you are in the race and the condition of your body. You will be unable to make any necessary adjustments if you aren’t fully informed on the condition of your body, the course and where your competitors are. You attention should begin to swing in favor of outward monitoring versus inward monitoring so that you aren’t placing too much focus on your growing fatigue.

Miles 18 through 24

This is where your fatigue really begins to rear its ugly head. At this point, I would suggest beginning to use more inward and outward distraction with most of your focus on outward distraction. With outward distraction you can disassociate with your fatigue and pain while still being aware of the race course and your competitors. Too much inward distraction could cause you to become unaware of important race conditions. Continue to use some inward monitoring to keep yourself on pace.

Mile 25 through 26.2

Now it’s time to switch back from distraction to monitoring. Your pain and fatigue are still around, but you can overcome them with adrenalin. Use a bit of outward distraction by focusing on the mile markers and the upcoming finish line while taking some of the focus off your pain. The excitement of finishing your race will carry you through these ending miles. Use a lot of inward monitoring and focus on keeping up a strong pace and a quality stride. Use your outward monitoring to look for competitors that you could pick off before the finish line.