Profiling the Mental Characteristics of Sub-Elite Marathon Runners

Submitted by J.E. Coumbe-Lilley1PhD*, K.L Hamstra-Wright. & A. Weidner.

1* Sport Studies, Department of Kinesiology and Nutrition, University of Illinois at Chicago

There has been considerable increase in the number of participants running marathons between 1990 and 2014 with the majority of runners between 23-54 years of age (Running USA, 2015). With the increase in the number of people and the range of abilities running marathons, it is important to the field of sport psychology to understand the preparatory, performance, and recovery needs of this group of athletes. The primary purpose of our institutional review board approved study was to describe the psychological skills profile of sub-elite marathon competitors to understand the important mental qualities leading runners to complete a marathon. The secondary purpose was to draw conclusions for future applied sport psychology intervention research.

Healthy adults participating in an 18-week marathon training program were recruited for the study (N=125; 30M, 95F; 20-70 years of age). Participants received electronic surveys at four time points corresponding with the training program: pre-training, 6 weeks, 12 weeks, and post-training. Participants completed the nine mental skills survey (9MS) (Lesyk, 1998). The 9MS uses 30 items, rated 1-10 with three subscales: Basic (attitude; motivation; goals and commitment; people skills), Preparatory (self-talk; mental imagery), and Performance (dealing with anxiety; dealing with emotions; concentration).

After exclusion of incomplete surveys, 43 (9M, 34F) surveys were analyzed. An analysis of the mean response for the 9MS subscales across each training time point was conducted via t-tests (p<0.05) The results of the analysis demonstrated attitude and goals commitment strengthened from week 6 to week 12. Perceived ability to cope with anxiety and manage emotions decreased from pre-training through post-training. Motivation, self-talk, and imagery were inconsistently rated over time.

Key Words: sub-elite, marathon, profiling, mental skills, pain, coping

There has been considerable increase in the number of participants running marathons between 1990 and 2014 with the majority of runners between 23-54 years of age (Running USA, 2015). Marathon running has morphed from an event for Olympic athletes to a social movement (Burfoot, 2007). Marathon runners are now viewed as motivated amateurs, running for a variety of social, health, competition, and personal reasons (Crust, 2013). For some men and women, these personal reasons include testing their mental/physical limits, completing their life goals, and/or raising money for charity (Carter & Sachs, 2012; Havenar & Lochbaum, 1997). Marathons offer the opportunity for runners of diverse ability, experience, and motives to participate and belong to the running community. These benefits enable marathon runners to experience an emotionally positive community of active individuals fulfilling personal and life goals (Carter & Sachs, 2012) united in their desire to complete a marathon.

Training to complete a marathon is a very demanding process, but the sense of accomplishment, competition, and reinforcement of health and personal goals enables runners to adhere to training, and leads many first time marathon runners to complete the race (Carter & Sachs, 2012). The process of race preparation has been discussed from an autoethnographic point of view which details the case of one runner from a qualitative personally reflective viewpoint (e.g., training; Anderson, 2007). The researchers in this study intended to extend the understanding of the training process to identify the mental skills and qualities a population of marathon runners use throughout their training program. Achieving this goal could create opportunities for interventions to be tested on groups of runners with similar characteristics.

Studies about marathon running have discussed the popular moment of pain and discomfort called “hitting the wall” (Buman, Brewer, Cornelius, Van Raalte & Petipas, 2008; Stevinson & Biddle, 1998) where runners experience intense pain, fatigue, and emotional distress at specific point in the race. Other studies have examined the causes and consequences of marathon related injuries (Jung, 2000; Fredericson & Misra, 2007; MCkelvie, Valliant & Asu, 1995; Nilson, Buist, Sorensen, Lind & Rasmussen, 2012).

A landmark study by Morgan and Pollock (1977) provided initial descriptions of elite marathon runners. The authors suggested how dissociative cognitive strategies were used by elite runners to achieve higher levels of performance. However, this assertion was challenged by Masters and Lambert (1989) who contended the use of such strategies was not supported and suggested associative strategies were used instead to achieve faster run times. Masters and Ogles (1998a &1998b) conducted a study demonstrating the influence of associative strategies, followed by a review of literature about the relationships between marathon running and associative strategies. They described how associative strategies helped pacing for faster times and continued running despite pain and injury. Although, their findings indicated ambiguity about the effects, measurement of motivation and use of cognitive strategies by marathon runners. Later, Lind, Welch and Ekkekakis (2009) conducted a significant review of marathon research spanning two decades which suggested no progress had been made to explain the relationships between effort intensity and cognitive strategies.

Other studies have investigated the desire and reasons to participate, compete, and finish a marathon (Summers, Sargant, Levey, & Murray, 1982) and several studies examined mood states (Beedie, Terry & Lane, 2000; Morgan & Costill, 1996; Rowley, Landers, Kyllo & Etnier, 1995; Wilson, Morley & Bird, 1980). These projects were inspired by the work of Morgan, Brown, Raglin, O’Connor and Ellickson (1987). Their research demonstrated relationships between training load and mood disturbance. The importance of their results is the identification of the possibility for mood, training load and injury to be related to each other. However, researchers still require a marathon runner profile to target coaching interventions that match psychological skills training (PST) with training load to increase pace, improve the race experience and mitigate the injurious physical effects of training load on the body. The goal of the current survey was to describe the mental skills characteristics of sub-elite marathon runners who finished their event. Therefore, helping the identification of a psychological profile to determine the basis for a future applied sport psychology intervention tailored to specific marathon runner needs.

The next section outlines a range of profiling studies of marathon runners.


In the four weeks before starting the training program, the Chicago Area Runners Association (CARA) invited all runners enrolled in their 18-week marathon training program to participate in this study by including an announcement in an electronic newsletter that was sent to the e-mail address of each runner. As a result, 1,957 runners in CARA’s marathon training program received the study announcement. The announcement included a web link where runners found further information, a consent form, and a field to submit their preferred e-mail address for survey administration. The runners were ineligible to participate if they indicated on the electronic consent form that they were younger than 18 years of age or had current musculoskeletal pain in a lower extremity or back that had caused a restriction in exercise for at least two consecutive exercise sessions.

This study received institutional review board approval requiring all participants to complete informed consent procedures.

Individuals enrolled in the CARA 18-week marathon training program, with the goal of completing the 2011 Chicago marathon, were recruited. This population was selected because of the large number of Chicago area participants enrolled in the CARA standardized marathon training program. This permitted the researchers to describe the training and mental skills preparation of a typical marathon training cohort diverse in age, sex, and abilities.
The runners in this program were given a beginning, intermediate, or advanced training schedule to follow with the goal of completing the Chicago marathon. They may participate in midweek and weekend group runs at various training paces based on their program level. To evaluate the mental skills of each runner and change over time, a survey Nine Mental Skills of Successful Athletes (9MS) (Lesyk, 1998) was administered pre-training, 6 weeks into training, 12 weeks into training, and post-training.

The 9MS is a 30 item self-assessment survey instrument measuring nine mental skills: attitude, motivation, goal setting, dealing with people effectively, use of positive self-talk, use of imagery, managing anxiety, managing emotions, and maintaining concentration. Each item is rated from 1 to 10 and completion of the survey serves to create a profile of the multiple psychological influences on sport performance which an expert panel of sport psychology consultants believe to be most important use of an inventory for developing PST interventions (O’Connor, 2004).

Research Design and Analysis
This was prospective cohort survey research study. Descriptive statistics of each subscale were calculated. T-tests of mean responses of each subscale category were performed to assess the differences in the subscales across the four training time points (T1: Pre-training, T2: 6 weeks, T3: 12 weeks, and T4: Post-training).

In assessing Basic (Attitude, Motivation, Goals & Commitment, and People Skills) mental skills, T1/T3, T2/T4, and T3/T4 were significant (Figure 1.). Preparatory (Self Talk and Mental Skills) at T2/T4 (0.02) and T3/T4 (9.56049×10-9) demonstrated significance. For Performance (Dealing with Anxiety, Dealing with Emotions, and Concentration) categories at T1/T3 (0.05) were found significant. T-tests of all 9 mental skill items at T1/T2 (0.003) and T2/T3 (0.02) showed significance.

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The data analysis showed that Basic mental skills mattered more than Performance skills to finishing the marathon. Results suggest several key findings. First, there is a significant cumulative effect of the combined mental skills influencing marathon performance. This finding means that the deeper the runners got into their training program the stronger the moderating influences of the Basic mental skills and imagery were. The researchers interpret this finding as reflective of previous research discussed in the introduction demonstrating motivation and attitude as important to completing a marathon. On one hand it is easy to recognize their importance to marathon running, on the other hand they might not reflect the influences of other mental skills and intrapersonal processes such as self-talk and imagery and external relationships like coaching, running groups, and social support from family and friends. Second, different mental skills at different time points appear more significant than others. The novel aspect of this study was the assessment of mental skills use through the training program and post-race. This approach has yielded an example of a mental skills profile not seen before. Thus, a case can be made for investigating the use of mental skills training for improved performance across time like the periodized and integrated programs suggested by Bacon (1989); Balague (2000); Coumbe-Lilley (2002); Hammermesiter and VonGuenthner (2005); Holliday et al., (2008); Bompa (2009); Beauchamp, Harvey and Beauchamp (2012). Finally, self-talk and imagery should be prescribed in the middle phases of training.

The researchers believe the results outlined above are vital findings for three reasons, 1) the results show the timing of an intervention which can lead to a study examining dose response of an intervention for enhanced experience and performance, 2) marathon runners can be taught how to self-regulate their cognitions and emotions during programmed training and for use in event through the use of self-talk and imagery, and 3) self-talk and imagery are moderators of the athletic experience and they can help mitigate the inevitable pain that accompanies training for a marathon, Previous studies suggested self-talk (Gibson & Misra, 2007; Masters & Lambert, 1989; Silva, & Appelbaum, 1989) and imagery (Patrick & Hrycaiko, 1998; McCormick, Meijen, & Marcora, 2015; Thelwell & Greenlees, 2003) are helpful to improve marathon and athletic performance.

The researchers acknowledge that this study had limitations including a drop in response rates across time which led to a lower sample size than hoped for. The sample is only representative of the respondents who completed all thirty items of the 9MS at the specific time the survey was administered. The goal of the recruited population was to finish the race, had the runners had a goal to finish the race in a certain time results might have been different. Training might have reflected desired pacing strategies to achieve the intended finishing time goal. Under these conditions, one could reasonably expect a systematic goal setting program; use of emotional and pain coping strategies which link to Performance not Basic skills. The previous experience of the runners with mental skills training was not measured and the results did not account for mental skills training and practice the participants used during their race preparation. The researchers recognize that response bias might be present and this sample might not be representative of all marathon runners. Thus, a series of improvements for the future studies will provide further support for the effects of mental skills training on performance.

Applications to Sport
Prospective studies should recruit marathon runners and stratify them based on their race goals (i.e. “to finish”, “finish in 4 hours or less”, “finish in 3.5 hours of less”, “finish in 3 hours or less”). Next, the same survey (9MS) be administered to increase the sample size of sub-elite marathon runners, and increase the opportunities for stratification and identification within the population. Possible future research directions include the development of a 1) mental skills profile of marathon runners based on finishing times and pain coping, 2) periodized mental skills training program aligned with a marathon training program to determine the impact on pain coping and running pace (Hamstra-Wright & Coumbe-Lilley, 2014) and 3) an applied sport psychology intervention to determine the impact of a psychological skills intervention on training and race outcomes.
We wish to thank Stephanie Sagum and the Chicago Area Runners Association for their help in producing this work, and Leeja Carter, PhD from Long Island University for her feedback.


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