Performance psychologist Dr Ciara Losty offers her advice to people mentally preparing themselves for an event like the Waterford Viking Marathon
For 2017, Waterford Viking Marathon has teamed up with the Department of Health, Sport & Exercise Science (DHSES) in Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) to provide expert training information in the run up to the event. In this article, performance psychologist Dr Ciara Losty talks us through mental preparation for running your race.
Running a marathon is not simply down to physical conditioning; the thoughts that run through your mind can affect the way you feel during running. It is normal for athletes to plan their race strategy in great detail, but how many of you plan what you are going to think about during training or competition? The nature and quality of your thoughts can make the difference between winning and losing, enjoying or hating your training, and may impact on your decision to stick with a training programme.
The first step towards becoming more organised and purposeful in your thinking is to become more aware of them. Starting point - next time you go training try to become more aware of what you are thinking about and write it down afterwards.
Thought Control Strategies
Two very different thought control strategies are commonly used by elite runners:
- Association involves focusing on bodily sensations and monitoring any changes – usually internal – that occur.
- Breathing rate and muscular sensations provide physiological cues that allow you to pace yourself with a view to avoiding or minimising pain.
- Association involves entering a more concentrated state when you can react to changes within your body, such as slowing your pace if your breathing rate increases.
- Focusing on internal states like rhythmical breathing can help you feel more relaxed during physical activity.
By contrast, dissociation is about directing attention away from bodily sensations by a form of distraction designed to reduce the runner’s awareness of fatigue or effort.
- This can be achieved by many means including listening to music, however, more ‘active’ strategies like counting tasks or the alphabet game (listing topics from a-z) might be more effective.
- Rainbow game – Try to notice as many colours as possible while you train: aim for all the colours of the rainbow and keep track of the number of each
- Active fantasy – Imagine yourself as a lottery winner and decide how to spend your winnings.
- Avoid thoughts relating to your work, jobs you have to do and anything problematic, as this can increase tension.
- Try to be creative and have fun with dissociation. It can help you relax and enjoy your running even more.
Techniques for associative body monitoring during a race
Follow this three-stage plan:
- Focus on your breathing: controlled, relatively deep rhythmic breathing is the key to relaxation. When you breathe out, try to imagine the tension leaving your body- even visualise it. Try to remain relaxed while running but be aware of tension and fatigue in your muscles.
- Start from the head and work down, giving each area or group of muscles your attention. If you notice tension, try to focus on a cue word (or breath out a cue word), such as ‘relax’ or ‘easy’ and try to let the tension flow out of the muscles.
- Keep your pace in line with the information you gain from body monitoring. You might, for example, increase the pace if you feel very positive.
Repeat the monitoring constantly or, alternatively, take some time out for dissociation. You might also reinforce your mood by telling yourself how well you are doing and that you need to keep working hard and remain focused. I am often asked which of these strategies is best. There is no simple answer, but a recent review of scientific research in this area came to the following conclusions. In general, association appears to be linked to faster running times. Dissociation can reduce the sense of effort and awareness of physical sensations such as pain and fatigue – usually up to moderate-to-high intensity – beginners. Runners of all levels appear to favour association in competition and dissociation in training. Finally, elite runners tend to use both strategies during training and races, and are able to switch between the two, as required.
Which strategy might be best for you?
Most athletes perform training runs at a slower pace than they use in competition, therefore body monitoring is less relevant. A better strategy for training runs might be to relieve boredom and monotony; so dissociation might be the better choice. This may also work well for athletes who want to improve their endurance by running for longer at moderate intensities. However, because dissociation works by distracting the mind, it might work against an athlete setting an ideal pace for optimum performance.
The reason why association appears so important in competition is that by monitoring their bodily responses, an athlete can ride that thin line between pushing for maximum performance and overdoing it. You are unlikely to achieve this if you are thinking about Coronation Street!
The best thing is to construct a plan with your coach or even a more experienced fellow athlete. Try to decide between you what the best approach is for you, and plan what you will be thinking about during the race or training sessions. For a 30-minute training run you might decide on cyclic phases of thinking- e.g. 10 minutes of body monitoring, 10 minutes of alphabet game, then more body monitoring to the end.
You wouldn’t leave your physical preparations to chance, so why allow your thoughts to crop up in random fashion. Don’t leave your psychological preparation to chances. Remember that you control your thoughts, not the other way round. The way you think is strongly linked to performance, so if you want to perform better, gain greater control and enjoy your running more, start planning today because in this sphere the thoughts really do count.