Representative image(Keshav Singh/HT)
Representative image(Keshav Singh/HT)

The Importance of mental training for marathon runners

How does a beginner build a running habit? How does a long distance runner overcome pain, fatigue or boredom?
By Shalini Gupta | Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
UPDATED ON NOV 13, 2019 03:04 PM IST

For someone who has been counselling runners and sportspersons for a decade, Divya Parashar once herself battled with a host of medical conditions like obesity, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), metabolic syndrome and insulin resistance.

A PhD in rehabilitation psychology from the University of Wisconsin, Delhi-based Parashar took to running in 2009 to maintain fitness. Initially training to run 7k at the Delhi Half-Marathon, the 44-year-old started training under the guidance of an endocrinologist and a nutritionist to lose weight and has since run multiple marathons and ultras.

In a chat, the clinical and rehabilitation psychologist threw light on the importance of mental training for runners, how a beginner stays motivated and how one stays in the right frame of mind to deal patiently with rehab after injury.

Excerpts:

How important is mental training for runners?

The gains in mental training seem incremental in marathoners. They speak about the importance of patience, focus, strategy, calmness, determination as traits that serve them well while they run long distances. It is obtained by committing to training over a prolonged period, setting realistic goals and developing paths to achieve them which become important to increase and sustain motivation. Logging runs, to see what factors influence runs (sleep, stress, what one ate) also enables runners to mentally calibrate what they need to do to get to optimal performance. Taking breaks to rest and recover and not get bored of a training schedule is also important to sustain the motivation.

How does mental training for runners work as one progresses towards becoming a marathoner?

Coping with pain, fatigue, and often more serious complications especially hallucinations require a level of self transcendence where the mind plays over matter and one persists. Meditation or any mindfulness activity helps to develop focus, patience, and calmness of the mind needed to take on these challenges. An endurance sport is truly the mind ruling the body to cross the finish line.

How does a beginner make running a habit?

For someone who has never tried running or engaged in any physical activity, it is usually their motivation to run that determines how easy or difficult it is to step out of the comfort zone. The common barriers are ‘lack of time’, ‘myths around running’ (most common being it’s bad for the knees), ‘not knowing where to start’, ‘wanting to do too much too soon’, ‘lack of support’ (peers, education, training plans). It is best to start with a ‘why’ one wants to run (health, coping with stress, maintaining fitness, loving the sport etc and then commit to figuring out the ‘how’ (training plans, where and when to run/walk, strength training, breathing techniques). It is important to be flexible with the schedule in case emergencies arise but a basic minimum needs to be committed to. If someone hasn’t experienced running before, it is important to develop a base. Work on walking, gaining stamina, endurance and move upwards by mixing walking and jogging and then proceed to running longer distances. Change doesn’t happen overnight and one must be patient, perseverant and committed to the process. Motivation levels need to be high and sustained to be able to focus through any physical activity.

How does one stay motivated over long distances?

Breaking the run into smaller segments (chunking) helps in tackling the strategy for a run. A half-marathon (21km) could be seen as chunks of 5km where you stretch for a few seconds after each segment. Self talk often works to keep going when one feels like quitting. Similarly, short phrases or running mantras also help one stay focused and centred. For example, ‘one step at a time’, ‘the body achieves what the mind believes’, ‘rest if you must but don’t you quit’ often serve as reminders and may spur you into renewed action when you need it the most. Mind games while on the run, especially when pain and fatigue sets in, can be helpful. Counting the number of trees or cars can also help. Counting backwards from 100 in sync with one’s breathing can also be an effective strategy to focus on calming the mind and maintaining focus. Run with a friend if running alone becomes tedious. The extrinsic motivation from a friend goes a long way.

How does someone recovering from injury get into the frame of mind to deal patiently with rehab?

An injury especially for an athlete whose vocation is sports can be a setback. Usually there is immense anxiety around recovery in terms of how long it could take, what the extent of the injury is, losing precious time in training and also losing physical endurance as a result. They may also take on risks by returning to physical activity when they haven’t recovered completely which further sets them back if the injury aggravates. Getting them to appraise and think of the situation objectively becomes an important task so that they could participate in rehabilitation well and complete the regime and not let their maladaptive thoughts and emotions come in the way. I use an eclectic counselling approach that enables them to hone their traits in patience, resilience, decision making, self efficacy and being calm while tackling difficulties.

Have you set any targets as a runner? Do you think marathons are catching up in India, especially in smaller cities?

I have run several half and full marathons. I am targeting the 55km La Ultra-The High in Ladakh in 2020. Yes, I do feel running has quickly caught up even from when I started a decade ago. More organised runs, the proliferation of running groups that enable individuals to train better and with peer support, increased awareness about the health benefits of physical activity and more education and information from experts in the field of running often serves to encourage more people to run.

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