The Psychology of the Marathoner

We recently came across a research paper that had been presented at a conference in 2007 by John Raglan, entitled “The Psychology of the Marathoner”. Obviously this struck our interest, especially as there were some interesting analysis within it. As such we have decided to use this newsletter to summarize the key points, while including our own thoughts on this topic.While the physiological attributes of endurance sport athletes, and in particular marathon runners, have been research for many years there has still been minimal investigation into the psychological components. Early work by Morgan and Pollock (1977) explored the mental health benefits of marathon running, finding that marathoners had better mental health compared to non-athletes. So distance running is good for you.
The knowledge of how important the psychological aspects are in influencing sport performance are regularly acknowledge (although many still do not act on training these skills). Raglin uses a quote from Sir Roger Bannister to emphasize this point:
“…psychological and other factors beyond the ken of physiology set the razor’s edge of defeat or victory…”
Having a positive mindset is one of the key factors to achieving peak performance, and we have highlighted the benefits of this in previous newsletters. Interestingly though, Raglin also suggests that marathon runners can paradoxically benefit performance by utilising negative emotions, such as anxiety, in certain circumstances.

Personality Characteristics of Marathoners

In our last newsletter we discussed personality traits and their influence in sport so we will not rehash that information. Marathoners and other endurance athletes have been identified as being less introverted than non-athletes, as well as scoring lower in depression and anxiety and higher in more desirable variables such as emotional stability. These traits are seen to be innate in the individual, rather than developed through participation in the sport. This suggests that participation in endurance events may be something that we are psychologically programmed to do. Motivational profiles in marathoners have also been determined to highly intrinsically focused, where the performer is driven by intrinsic rewards. Within applied sport psychology we try to encourage athletes to become more intrinsically motivated as it promotes increased effort, greater persistence and lower anxiety levels. Further research across a 20-year period by O’Connor (2007) has found that the positive attributes of successful marathon runners are stable and enduring. Simply a positive focus has a greater likelihood of better performance.

State Anxiety and Performance

State anxiety is easily described as situational nervousness i.e. mounting stress about an upcoming race, which fluctuates over time. Most sports psychologists would suggest that marathon runners would benefit from having low levels of state anxiety, however studies with endurance athletes have revealed the influence of anxiety varies considerably, with some athletes actually benefitting from high anxiety. When investigating anxiety in more depth it is recognised that each individual has a zone of optimal functioning (IZOF), postulating that optimal anxiety levels are idiosyncratic. As suggested it would seem best for athletes to have lower levels of anxiety as this will help enhance positive emotional responses, but IZOF research involving distance runners indicates that between 30-45% perform best when anxiety is high. Something that has been replicated in runners as young as 9 years old. When assessing these results it must be noted that this information is collected pre-event and does not suggest that being anxious all through training is optimal. In fact, being under constant stress in training will undoubtedly lead to a decrease in enjoyment, demotivation and lack of persistence / adherence to the program. Nonetheless the anxiety experienced before a marathon is not uniformly detrimental to performance but can actually be beneficial for competitors. It is proposed that using anxiety reducing techniques before a marathon may be counterproductive, harming rather than benefitting their performance. It is about knowing when you perform best.

Coping with the Stress of the Marathon

Due to the length of duration in endurance sports it is necessary to adopt a range of different psychological strategies to deal with both the physical and psychological stress. Many elite marathon runners learn to pay close attention to the physical sensations i.e. muscle fatigue; hydration to actively attempt to optimise performance. While non-elite runners regularly use psychological strategies in an attempt to distract themselves from discomfort. This strategy often involved unusual methods such as conducting complicated mathematical calculations, mentally designing houses, and reliving past performances. Other alternatives to manage the stress include adhering to pre-race strategies to do with pacing, or following in the footsteps of another runner irrespective of their pace. This type of strategy does have a greater potential for injury though and may result in “hitting the wall”, as the runner is not managing their own performance. Interestingly about 50% of Olympic distance runners use psychological coping strategies in training but none do in a competition. It is recommended to become more aware of your physiological feelings and understand how these can be used as triggers during the run.