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The psychology of endurance: It’s a marathon, not a sprint

Tuesday 9th June

The psychology of endurance: It’s a marathon, not a sprint

Why are some people able to power through when it comes to distance running more than others? This blog post investigates the psychology of endurance and how it could be a case of mind over matter.

Our very own Senior Business Psychologist, Agnieszka Zbieranska, recently completed her first marathon (the Milano City Marathon) with an outstanding time of 3 hours and 50 minutes. She says: “Training for a marathon takes about 3 months, and so it’s easy to lose your stamina and enthusiasm in the process. Not to mention during the race itself! Running for about 4 hours at a consistent pace, with your legs burning and mind wandering in all directions, definitely isn’t easy.”

Historically, researchers believed that grinding to a halt during exercise was due to physical, muscle fatigue, but modern-day scientists are beginning to think differently. Tim Noakes, Professor in Exercise Science and Sports Medicine at the University of Cape Town, argues that the brain is responsible for enabling or limiting performance as opposed to the body. His ‘Central Governor Theory’ suggests that the brain is responsible for ensuring our safety in any circumstance. Due to this evolutionary protection mechanism, our brain holds back from pushing us beyond our limits; meaning that we always have a little reserve and could push a little harder!

So how can mental endurance be maintained during marathon training and on the big day itself?

Stay focused on your goals

Keeping focused on why you are running in the first place is a good starting point. Whilst many serious athletes are motivated by improving a personal best or beating the competition, others are set on completing the marathon to raise money for a charity close to their hearts. Setting goals is key to achieving targets across many capacities and marathon running is no different.

Use positive-self talk

In the hours in between stepping over the start line and triumphantly crossing the finish line, runners will undoubtedly experience an array of emotions and thoughts. Using positive-self talk can replace negative thinking prone to creating feelings of anxiety and impair performance as a result of irregular breathing, increased heart rate, and lack of focus.


Visualise your success

Visualisation is a common technique used by athletes whereby they create a mental image of what they want to happen or feel in reality. When picturing these scenarios, the athlete should try to imagine the detail and the way it feels to perform this way. These scenarios can be visual, kinesthetic, or auditory.

Agnieszka also tells us how she personally managed to stay mentally tough both before and after the race:

“Firstly, I did my best to train as thoroughly as possible, while at the same time letting go of any expectations in regard to my result. Rather, I treated the whole experience as an excellent way to get to know myself better – body and mind alike. I was also flexible with my training routine, and rather than beating myself up for skipping occasional runs, I tried to praise myself for training at all. This certainly wasn’t easy for an A-type personality (typically defined as someone who is more competitive and self-critical) like me, but this approach made it easier to actually enjoy my daily, shorter runs, and long weekend runs.

Secondly, I tried to make running as enjoyable as possible – I listened to my favourite music, podcasts or audiobooks, I picked pleasant locations to run and stopped to admire the views, and buddied up with friends or fellow runners. During the race I waved at the audience or high-fived whoever wanted to high-five me, and chatted to fellow runners whenever possible. This often meant that I wasn’t as fast as I could’ve been, but I was certainly more engaged and entertained.

Lastly, I smiled. A lot. Especially during the race, at times when I felt physical pain or mental fatigue. As research shows, even a fake smile changes our mood and physiology, and so it is very hard to feel upset, tired, or defeated with a smile (even a forced one!) on our faces. Even if it looks or feels funny, you should definitely smile as much as you can!”

Endurance during marathon training is more than physical. It’s important to ensure that you are mentally and psychologically tough to prepare for and take on the 26 miles.

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