The Psychology & Science Of Marathon Running

Running a marathon requires more than physical endurance – it requires mental fortitude, too. The physical training required to endure a marathon is only part of the equation – it’s just as important, if not more important, to train the mind to withstand the pressures exerted upon it during a marathon run. This article will examine the psychological & sports science of marathon running, providing advice on how to mentally prepare for running a marathon.

Anaerobic Respiration

The body requires vast amounts of oxygen while cardiovascular activities such as running and jogging are performed. While the human body is extraordinarily efficient at extracting oxygen from the air that we breathe, it is often unable to supply the muscles with the amount of oxygen they need while undergoing strenuous exercise. The human body is well prepared for this situation, however, with a system set up to provide the muscles with higher amounts of oxygen whenever it is needed.

Anaerobic respiration is a process in which the body converts glucose molecules in carbohydrates into oxygen for use by the muscles. The muscles then use this oxygen as fuel to keep them working for longer periods of time. An unfortunate by product of this process is a substance called ‘lactic acid’. As the name suggest, lactic acid is acidic in nature, and it directly affects the acidity of the muscle cells. As the amount of lactic acid in the muscles continues to rise, the muscle start to feel sore and tired and they start to ache.

While it may seem counterproductive that the body works in such a way, it actually makes a great deal of sense. If the muscles and joints are overexerted for too long, they can become susceptible to permanent damage that can have adverse side effects. The build up of lactic acid ensures that the muscles are not overexerted to the point that permanent damage is possible.

Mental Toughness

The ability to endure lactic acid build up in the muscles is an essential skill that marathon runners need to learn. 26 miles is a very long distance, and lactic acid build up will start to occur very early on during the run. If a marathon runner is to successfully complete a marathon, they will need to be able to mentally endure the soreness and fatigue caused by lactic acid build up in the muscles.

Training the mind to become mentally tougher is difficult, but manageable. Much like physical training, mental training requires consistent and gradual training over a prolonged amount of time.

Focus is one of the most important skills to learn, and meditation is one of the easiest ways to learn it. Meditation involves sitting still for periods of 15 to 20 minutes. During this time, the goal is to keep the mind focused and free of thoughts and distraction. The easiest way to do this is to focus on the breath, observing it as it enters and leaves the body. By spending as little as 20 minutes each day performing meditation, the focus ‘muscle’ will build up and become stronger.

It’s also important to learn how to silence the voice of doubt that often enters the mind screaming “you can’t do that!”.

There are two ways to do this.

Firstly, spend 10 minutes each day visualising the successful completion of the marathon. The brain is unable to distinguish between visualisations in the mind and events that are occurring in real life. As such, through visualisation, the mind will start to believe that it is capable of successfully completing a marathon, and the voice of doubt will soon be silenced.

Secondly, create a number of ‘power phrases’ that inspire confidence. Whenever the voice of doubt shows itself, repeat these power phrases repeatedly to drown it out. This is particularly important to do during the marathon itself; the voice of doubt will never be louder than it is during the first few miles of the run.

Conclusion

Mental training is just as important as physical training when preparing to run a marathon. Spend 20-25 minutes each day building up the muscles of mental toughness – the training will pay off greatly on the day of the marathon run.

Brad Chambers wrote this post on behalf of Sealskinz.com, foot, head and hand specialists, leading the way on pro sports running gloves. Brad blogs about extreme sports, science, health and fitness. Follow us on twitter here.

About Ross