Strategies for Working with First Time Marathon Runners

Authors: Leeja Carter(1), John Coumbe-Lilley, Ph.D.*(2) Ph.D., Brenton Anderson(3)

(1) Leeja Carter, PhD is an Assistant Professor in the Division of Athletic Training, Health, and Exercise Science (ATHES) as well as the Director of the Performance Excellence in Applied Kinesiology Lab (PEAK) at Long Island University-Brooklyn. Dr. Carter also serves as the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP) Diversity Committee Chair, AASP Women in Sports Special Interest Group coordinator, and sits on the AASP Foundation Committee. Such professional experiences allow Dr. Carter to promote issues of diversity in exercise and sport psychology.

(2) John Coumbe-Lilley, Ph.D. is a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Nutrition at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Dr Coumbe-Lilley, is a Certified Consultant with the Association of Applied Sport Psychology and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. He is a member of the USOC sport psychology registry and a seasoned sport psychology consultant.

(3) Brenton Anderson, is a graduate student at Adler University.

*Corresponding Author:
John Coumbe-Lilley, PhD, CC-AASP, CSCS
University of Illinois at Chicago
Department of Kinesiology and Nutrition
901 W. Roosevelt Road
MC 194
Chicago IL , 60608

Marathon running has increased in popularity and first time participants. Novice marathon runners are often highly motivated with positive attitudes at the start of their training. However, they are often unprepared for the mental and emotional demands of training and the race itself. This paper discusses the common psychological experience of “hitting the wall” and a range of challenges a novice might face on their way to race completion. A case example shows how a marathon runner might prepare to complete a marathon race and a multi-modal mental skills training approach is recommended as a complementary race preparation strategy to physical and technical preparation.

KEYWORDS: marathon, mental skills training, novice

Marathon running has turned from an Olympic competition to a social movement (Burfoot, 2007) with the prototypic marathon runner characterized as an amateur, recreational runner running for a variety of social, health, competition, and generally personal reasons (Crust, 2011); It has attracted men and women excited to test their limits, complete their bucket lists, and/or raise money for charity (Carter & Sachs, 2012; Havenar & Lochbaum, 1997). With diversity among runner ability, experience, and motives for running, the marathon running community offers prospective marathon runners a welcoming community of active individuals fulfilling personal and life goals (Carter, & Sachs, 2012) through means of 26.2 mile runs at a time.

The sense of accomplishment, competition, and reinforcement of health and personal goals that bring many to run a marathon provide insight into the marathon runner’s motivations to run, adherence to training, and ability to complete the marathon (Carter & Sachs, 2012). However, during the process of race preparation (e.g., training; Anderson, 2007) and the race, examining the fluctuation of moods, emotions, mental toughness, and confidence are of particular interest to the scholar-practitioner.

Challenges for the First-Time Marathon Runner
Marathon runners face numerous physical, emotional, and psychological challenges before and during a marathon (Anderson, 2007, Havenar & Lachbaum, 2007). Physical challenges include dehydration, fatigue, temperature, or the weather (Anderson, 2007; Morgan & Pollock, 1977; Lieberman & Bramble, 2007); As one newbie marathon runner (colloquial term used for first time marathon runners) stated, “… but my cause of uncertainty was the fierce, 30-mile-per-hour wind with higher gusts that had moved in overnight. Maine weather is notorious for its schizophrenic nature, and this weekend wasn’t much of an exception” (Anderson, 2007, p. 107). In comparison, psychological challenges can include feelings of anxiety about the race, limiting distraction and staying focused, confidence (Stevenson & Biddle, 1998), and having that “can do” attitude before and during the marathon (Anderson, 2007).

Compounding such challenges are runners’ inexperience with the running course both physically and mentally (Anderson, 2007). Such inexperience is characteristic of first-time marathon runners whose race preparation has typically focused on finishing their first marathon and not optimizing their run (Morgan, 1978) through physical and psychological training prior to running the marathon (Crust & Azadi, 2009).

Mental and physical preparation is essential for the first time marathon runner (Anderson, 2007); Coaches, seasoned runners, and sport psychology consultants often discuss the importance of mental and physical balance (Crust & Azadi, 2009) on being prepared for a marathon with such psychological skills as positive self-talk, goal setting, imagery, and relaxation techniques often cited as beneficial to increasing one’s mental preparedness (Crust & Azadi, 2009).

Hitting the Wall (HTW)
Without mental preparation, runners find themselves concerned with potential race situations as injury (Buman, Omli, Giacobbi, & Brewer, 2012), hydration, finding support along the race path, or the dreaded “wall”, also known as hitting the wall (HTW; Buman et al.,, 2012). HTW is a physiological and psychological response to an aversive situation that requires physical activity (Buman et al., 2012). This response is often described by runners as a point in their run or the race where they feel physically and/or psychologically exhausted (Stevinson & Biddle, 2009; Buman et al., 2012).

According to Stevinson and Biddle (1998) the physiological element of the wall can be defined as “. . . where glycogen supplies have been exhausted and energy has to be converted from fat” (p. 229) thus depleting the body and hindering a runner’s ability to perform (Stevinson, & Biddle, 1998). However, the psychological component of HTW can be described as emotional and cognitive factors that impede an athlete’s ability to adhere to their given physical activity (Buman et al.,, 2012, p. 285). Such activity may progress from moderate, to challenging, to aversive (Buman et al., 2012).

Morgan and Pollock (1977) examined two forms of cognitive strategies by elite and amateur athletes when hitting the wall; According to Morgan and Pollock (1977) elite runners used more associative cognitive strategies, referring to thoughts or behaviors that related to “paying attention to the body and the physical factors critical to performance” (Buman et al., 2008, p. 285) in order to cope with HTW. In contrast, amateur athletes used more dissociative strategies, “characterized as a type of self-hypnosis in which runners purposely try to cut themselves off from the sensory feedback they would normally receive from their body during the run” (Buman et al., 2008, p. 285).

Addressing perceived threats as well as stressors experienced by runners is a common and effective intervention strategy used for preventing HTW (Buman et al, p. 298; Stevenson & Biddle, 1998). Moreover, such psychological skills as arousal control to address relaxation during the event, imagery to work through the perceived threats and challenges during the race, and reframing to modify runners’ maladaptive perceptions of the event are effective sport psychologically-specific strategies for HTW intervention (Crust & Azadi, 2009).

Finding Support
Marathon training is often dependent on a supportive and social running environment (Havenar & Lochbaum, 2007) as well as clarifying one’s purpose for running and goals for the marathon. Havenar and Lochbaum (2007) confirm that there are several motivating factors for individuals who finish their first marathon, with first time marathoners motivated to finish, in general, and veteran marathoners encouraged through social affiliation (Havenar & Lochbaum, 2007).

Joining a running group provides first time runners motivation through social interaction. Running groups are a good recommendation to provide runners assistance with adhering to a marathon training program. However, finding a running group whose running schedule, purpose for running (e.g., charity, performance, or social), and general running culture align with the first-timer’s can be a confusing and frustrating venture for any first time marathon runner thus causing many first time marathon runners to dismiss the importance and benefits of joining a running group for marathon training (Carter & Sachs, 2012).

Yet the race education one receives from being with more seasoned and experienced runners, emotional validation experienced from running and talking with other first timers who (Carter & Sachs, 2012) share the same feelings of worry and anxiety, the feeling of accountability connected to training with a group, and satisfying those feelings of belonging are important to adhering to a marathon training program and coping with the physical, mental, financial, and emotional strains marathon training places on the runner.

Developing Positive Coping Strategies
The importance of emotions on marathon race performance is important to consider. Runners who experience more negative mood disruption are more likely to have decreases in flow (Carter & Sachs, 2012) and engage in more dissociative cognitive strategies thus negatively affecting race performance (Carter & Sachs, 2012). Therefore, focusing on proper in-race coping strategies that are more associative (e.g., kinesthetic awareness, arousal control, etc.) would benefit the marathoner runner.

Nutrition and Physical Training
Marathoners report not paying much attention to their diet or nutrition, nor incorporating strength training into their weekly training regimens (Austin & Seebohar, 2011). The effects of poor nutrition and core strength can cause frequent running related injuries and anxiety about one’s ability to push through the race later in the marathon (Austin & Seebohar, 2011). Having sound nutrition, strength, and endurance training as part of a complete training regimen would serve to decrease frequent injury, as well as increase runners’ confidence prior to the race.

Case Study: Alexis
The first time marathon experience brings unique challenges and rewards to the runner. Below is an example of a novice marathon runner and the experiences she had while training for her first marathon that included: coaching and preparing for race-day challenges.

Alexis is a 32 two-year old lawyer who lives in downtown Chicago near the lakefront. Alexis is highly motivated to complete the city’s marathon, as running a marathon is a “bucket list item” and will assist her in maintaining her weight through daily training and exercise. She is participating in her first marathon and she works with her coach Tony; Tony is a personal trainer and performance enhancement specialist with experience working with runners.

Challenge #1: More is Not Always Better: The Myth about Volume
The first challenge Tony helped Alexis overcome concerned ‘volume’ training. It is common for newbie marathon runners to complete greater volume than they are physically prepared to cope with therefore predicting lower limb extremity injury (Oestergardaard Nielsen et al., 2012). In Alexis’ case she was exceeding 40 miles per week and the marathon was still 12 weeks away. Tony restructured Alexis’ training regimen and reduced her mileage. He educated Alexis about the cause and likelihood of injury and the need for recalibrating the volume and intensity goals of Alexis’ training program. At first, it was difficult for Alexis to accept that her goals needed adjustment because she believed doing more was better. She wanted to be ready for the event and maintain her body shape too. However, she learned that she was more likely to HTW, experience injury, and decrease her chances of finishing the marathon with her current training regime. She found it hard to negotiate down her volume because she felt she should do more and her physical shape might suffer; however, she was comforted knowing that she could train every day and would finish the marathon by calibrating to preserve her body (Burman et al 2007) and maintain an appropriate training regimen per her marathon race goals. By Alexis and Tony negotiating this obstacle they were able to overcome negative expectancies associated with novice marathon runners HTW and/or running whilst injured in the event (Hall et al 2006; ).

Challenge #2: Hitting the Wall
Strategies for practitioners working with first time marathon runners whose primary issues are emotional or physical fatigue due to the negative effects of perceived threat, challenge, or harm (Stevinson & Biddle, 1998) should look to incorporate the following strategies (see below) into their sport and exercise psychology practice:

1. Mindfulness: Defined as being self-aware of your performance. Understanding your mental mindset towards a specific task can allow a marathoner to prevent negative thoughts and focus on their present and future performance.

Challenge #3: Finding Support
Gaining support is a critical factor for the marathon newbie. Strategies to locate and engage support include but are not limited to the following:

1. Working with a coach can help a novice marathon runner develop a helpful cognitive appraisal of their experience and avoid unnecessary injury (Brewer, 1994). The case of Alexis above demonstrated the influence of coach Tony who helped her manage her anxiety and encourage her to continue running using an alternative way still leading to her goal. Sport psychology practitioners are ideally placed to use a strategy like reframing in the context of their social interaction with a runner to provide the individual with a vision and a concept to appraise and perceive their experience differently and acceptably to prevent injury and promote goal attainment.

2. Charitable organizations promote marathon running and raising money for a good cause. Often these organizations provide training groups for runners deciding to run and fundraise for them. This brings people with a common set of beliefs together and strengthens commitment to the goals they share.

3. Marathon races tend to be sponsored by running related footwear or sport equipment stores near the race venue. These sponsors often organize running groups and educational events bringing their local running community together.

4. Employers use endurance events like marathons as part of their worksite wellness programs. Employees train and run together creating healthy work cultures and sharing goals and experiences.

Challenge #4: Developing Positive Coping Strategies
Teaching runners positive coping strategies to use during their marathon run should include a well-crafted mental skills program that is tailored to the runner’s race goals, perceived challenges, and training regimen.

1. Practitioners should use goal setting in order to help the athletes rehearse the achievement of their goals.

2. As a basic introduction, teaching runners how to set SMART goals (Specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time bound) is a minimum strategy that ought to be employed.

3. Ensuring explicit short-term goal achievement is critical to strengthening commitment to long term goal achievement.

4. Applying confidence rulers to daily or weekly goal achievement is a useful tool for moderating the effects of everyday living and fatigue on a runner. The confidence ruler permits goal adjustment and prevents runners falling into the trap of a goal violation effect by promoting self-appraisal of a type of goal to achieve given what is happening in the runner’s life.

5. Practitioners should use imagery to assist athletes in coping with emotions and thoughts through matching athletes’ concerns and race goals to themed content within the script. Practitioners should personalize each imagery script to further assist the athletes in seeing themselves in the imagery and feeling themselves working through their stated concerns and, when available, use course video to help runners map the race.

Challenge #5: Nutrition and Physical Training
1. Encourage runners to know the race course (e.g., course layout, changes in elevation, aid stations, portable toilets) to maximize their psychological preparation for a race. By being familiar with the race course, runners can goal set their marathon run for areas where they will need to stop, refuel, or rest.

2. Teach runners how to use the basic principles of periodization (Bompa & Hall, 2009) to plan, do and evaluate their physical training to optimize their experience and mitigate the risk of injury. Variables runners can be taught to control include 1) frequency of training, 2) volume of training, 3) intensity of training, 4) type of training, 5) duration of training and 6) complexity of training.

3. Educate runners on the concept of nutrient timing and integrate a registered dietitian into the race preparation process. Austin and Seebohar (2011) provide expert guidance about how to use nutrient timing processes in endurance events to sustain energy, concentration and performance. Teaching runners how to use nutrient timing helps them gain control of the pre-HTW moments and promotes physical and emotional coping when the body tends to feel the severity of the physical demand.

Applications to Sport
It is likely a multi strategy mental skills training approach will be most useful to develop the positive coping responses to the challenges presented by a marathon to new runners. Training for a marathon requires months of preparation before the final run which inevitably requires high effort, engagement and commitment to complete the race. Practitioners working with marathon runners are recommended to learn, acquire, and apply the psychological tools outlined in this paper utilizing a systematic delivery approach aligned with the specific requirements of the event.

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