Count Your Blessings
Dr. Matt Long explores some useful mental strategies that you could use to help you cope with endurance events like the marathon.
On the morning of the race, you have applied Vaseline to every moving body part and even don a heart rate monitor and the latest GPS technology to guide you through the 26.2 miles ahead. However, have you worked out your mental strategy to ensure you arrive at the finish in decent shape? Accepting that your brain and thought processes have control of your body is the key to taking ownership of your athletic performance - Padgett and Hill (1989).
According to sports psychologist Lee Crust (n.d.), cognitive association typically involves focusing on internal bodily sensations during performance, such as heart rate, breathing rate, muscular sensations and sweating. This mode of association may be preferred by the majority of both club and international athletes during competition as a way of monitoring fatigue to attempt to ensure optimal performance. There is, however an alternative way of approaching your Marathon.
Morris (n.d.) tells us that according to the urban myth of the Tibetan monks by fixating on a distant mountain peak and repeating a mantra stride-after-stride, the monks were able to dissociate their conscious thought processes from the demands placed on the body and cover 300 miles in 30 hours which averages at an unbelievable six minutes per mile. No doubt only a legend, but the principle for the benefit of dissociation is well made. The following tabular presentation documents some extrinsic and intrinsic modes of distraction which facilitate cognitive dissociation, and which may help you navigate the course.
Cognitive dissociation stimuli and distractors
An advocate of both association and dissociation
A key advocate of both associative and dissociative techniques is world marathon record holder Paula Radcliffe who is reputed to use the auditory technique of listening to inspirational songs, such as Kanye West's 'Stronger' (O'Connell, 2009). In addition, it is known that Radcliffe favours the cognitive strategy of the counting game articulated above.
Although a clear advocate of two distinctive dissociative strategies, the second half of Radcliffe's statement above in terms of breathing and striding is clear allusion to the benefits of associative strategies as well because they involve mental focus on technical aspects of running. This leaves us to reflect that it is not an either-or when one evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of both associative and dissociative mental strategies. Sports Psychologist, Lee Crust, himself advocates a triangulation of the two at various 'cyclical phases' during the marathon and this is endorsed empirically by Silva and Appelbaum's (1989) multivariate analysis of 32 US Olympic trial marathoners.
Running in races where there is a large field of runners the use of dissociative cognitive strategies could pose a danger in terms of a 'switching-off' which could increase the likelihood of accident or injury, sustained for example by running into a fellow athlete who stops to take fluid on board at a water station or tripping up on a hazard such as a discarded water bottle.
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About the Author
Dr. Matt Long works for British Athletics in coach education having delivered work at the national high-performance centre at Loughborough University.
The following Sports Coach pages provide additional information on this topic: