Marathon Training Part 2: Choose Your Own Focus

By: Chuck Finder

This is the second in a three-part series on training for the Pittsburgh Marathon.

Dragging the human body through hundreds of miles in training and then either the 26.2-mile marathon or 13.1-mile half-marathon isn’t all feet, legs, muscles, bones, sinew, circulatory system and fuel.
Long distance running is what happens between the ears, too.
Think about it. . . for miles on end.
“There are no Jedi mind tricks,” AimeeKimball, Ph.D., on Saturday told the second seminar session for the Dick’s Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon at Ladies Hospital Auxiliary Society Auditorium at UPMC Montefiore.  Kimball is the director of mental training with UPMC Sports Medicine, which sponsors the three-part seminars that serve as a marathon prep course. And what she advised the 75 runners present, many of them entering their inaugural long-distance race on marathon Sunday, May 5, was a simple philosophy: Just like you set your own pace, you also control your own thoughts.
“You get to choose your attitude while you run, what you’re focusing on,” Dr. Kimball continued. “You really have to work to train your mind as well as your body.”
She asked the roomful of runners to describe their biggest fear of raceday, and the majority answered: Not finishing.  Second place went to worries about the proverbial “wall,” that physically and mentally feared moment around Mile 20 when doubt and/or pain sets into a runner.
“Tip for you: You are going to get tired. You’re running 26 miles,” Dr. Kimball teased.
Rather, mentally train yourself to exude confidence and understand that, yes, there will come a time for aches and more. She offered a slate of tips: emotional control, focus, self-talk, attitude, motivation, confidence.
“To me, that’s the hardest part of the marathon: Not the 26 miles, but mentally preparing for it,” she said.
Dr. Kimball asked the audience members to close their eyes and recall what they think while running. Then she offered them different techniques to train and focus the mind: Think about technique, concentrate on breathing, whatever gets you through adversity or hills. Keeping a post-run journal might help in that regard, too.
“Whatever works for you then will work on race day,” Kimball said. “You have to identify what works for you, what helps you run well.”
Just as a runner might plan out times, places and paces, you should also create a mental plan for raceday. Choose a mindset for different parts of the race, including how to occupy your thoughts for the long wait at the race’s start and the finish line.
Tips for focusing include using counting, music or imagery to trigger thoughts. Maybe seeing a playground will remind you to have fun. One runner used the visual of portable toilets to “flush away” negative thoughts.
Try to stay in the present rather than thinking, Ohmigosh, I got 20 more miles to go.
“Don’t tell yourself anything you wouldn’t want someone else to. You’ve got to learn to be your own best friend. You have to be cheering yourself on,“ Kimball said. Along those lines, she recommended scrawling your name on your T-shirt or bib, and maybe even bringing along your Terrible Towel. Others will cheer for you then.