We all know a long run is hugely physically tough, but the psychological challenge of something like a marathon can be as great, if not greater, than the physical one. It’s all too easy to have a longdistance run undone by the mental demons that produce doubt, anxiety and even panic as the prospect of the distance ahead becomes all-consuming. However, sports psychology provides a range of techniques to help runners prepare for, and complete, the distance.
A technique called ‘visualisation’, where you picture yourself running and finishing the race, is useful. This can also work as a motivational tool during training, to remind you of why you’re making all the sacrifices involved in the preparation. You could also try ‘association’, used by elite runners, where you focus purely on the task in hand. You maintain a sharp awareness of your own body, and the physical factors that influence performance.
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It involves being acutely aware of the pace you’re running at and making sure you’re relaxed and running as efficiently as possible. Non-elite runners have been found to use a technique a technique called ‘dissociation’ to cut themselves off from the feedback and discomfort they’re experiencing and switch to thinking about taking in the scenery and cheering crowds or having a motivational song in their head, for example. I’ve found that most runners, regardless of ability, use a mixture of both association and disassociation, and they often use them subconsciously. Most runners will start an event with a personal goal (such as a finish time).
Psychologists have found that one of the biggest mental challenges faced by long-distance runners occurs when they start thinking their goal is unattainable (perhaps they’re having a bad run or have an injury). Doubts creep in and the challenge ahead can seem insurmountable. At this point, you need to focus on the achievement of having covered the distance you have. You could also reset your goal – aiming to complete and not compete – and use the techniques already mentioned – to help you reach the finish line.