Focus on the finish line

Emil Zátopek, Czech Olympic Gold medalist, once observed: “If you want to run, run a mile. If you want to experience a different life, run a marathon.” As anyone involved in preparing for a marathon can attest, this changed life begins in training. More than proper running shoes and carbohydrate loading, the most important part of training takes place in the mind.

THE TRAINING process forces us to take control of our thinking. Just like in life, the thoughts one has during running can play a large role in whether one quits or perseveres. As race day commences, one is faced with pressure or excitement, depending on one’s perspective. One deciding factor is our mental approach. American sports psychologist Dave Yukelson recommends “to offset pre-race anxiety associated with a first race, don’t get caught up in what others are doing. Focus on what you’ve brought to the race – your preparation, training and goal. Enjoy the experience, trust your preparation and run for the moment.” Much of this “running for the moment” involves concentration. We all have the potential to focus fully, but it is tempting to give in to distractions. Most of these come from ourselves. Thinking “I’ll never make it” or “I’m too slow” will sabotage us more than any opponent. Thankfully, we can change from being our own worst enemy, and instead act as our ideal coach. Telling yourself you can succeed and keeping a mental picture of triumph is part of a winner’s attitude. We can practice this concept during training, and apply it during the marathon. We can also trick ourselves into making the race easier, by taking this advice from Joan Samuelson, winner of the 1st Women’s Olympic Marathon in 1984: “Instead of focusing on the full distance, mentally break the marathon into smaller segments so it doesn’t seem so overwhelming. For instance, you might think of the first portion as a favorite 10-mile training run, then envision yourself running a 6.2-mile (10 km) course you really enjoy. This leaves you with only 10 miles to the finish.”

Of course, we also must care for ourselves physically in these crucial pre-race weeks. To help you get the most out of race day, use these training tips:

  • Winner of the 1993 World Championships Marathon suggests this remedy for tight muscles: “Stretch out your legs by picking up speed-for two minutes, tops – then settle back into your former pace.”
    · In the Men’s Health Guide to Peak Conditioning, exercise physiologist Budd Coates advises stretching after, rather than before your run. “If you stretch after you work out, you will be ready for the next day’s run,” he explains.
  • Nutritionist and author Nancy Clark says: “Don’t eat more the week before. Because your training is lighter than normal the week before a marathon, you’re burning fewer calories than usual. Which means you can load up on energy by eating the way you normally do (60% carbohydrates, 15% protein and 25% fat). You don’t need to carbo-load for a week.”
  • In his latest book, Marathoning A to Z, Hal Higdon reminds us: “Training too hard can drain energy. Even though you get through your daily workouts and complete the miles prescribed in your training program, you may feel fatigued both before and after workouts. You may also need more sleep, yet at the same time you will have trouble getting to sleep. To preserve energy, choose a sensible training program, eat a diet with plenty of carbohydrates, and get to bed early each night.”
  • Olympic marathoner and sports physiologist Pete Pfitzinger says: “Several studies investigating the relationship between racing performance and taper duration concluded that the optimal length of taper is from seven days to three weeks. The optimal amount of time for you to taper depends on both the distance you will be racing and how hard you have been training.” Pfitzinger suggests tapering 20% the third week before the race, 40% the second week before, and 60% the week before.






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