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Marathon running: a battle against both the body and the mind barrier

The big run is finally here, hours and miles of training completed and you have gels and trainers at the ready. Whilst a target time is in mind for completion, mostly you just want to complete it without premature exhaustion and without fatigue preventing you crossing the finish line. How do our bodies and minds execute this?

Marathon running a battle against both the body and the mind barrier

The big run is finally here, hours and miles of training completed and you have gels and trainers at the ready. Whilst a target time is in mind for completion, mostly you just want to complete it without premature exhaustion and without fatigue preventing you crossing the finish line. How do our bodies and minds execute this?

Physiologically our muscles will deplete their internal fuel supplies within the working muscles and run down energy sources in blood; this can be topped-up by energy drinks and gels consumed during the race. Over the race we run low on energy, sweat rates increase, hearts beat faster and breathing becomes heavier. Equally, minds will demand that we stop, screaming at us with all the signals of pain and discomfort. Despite all this, inner drive and motivation can still override these physiological perceptions of fatigue so we complete the mammoth task. How do we manage this across the whole 26.2 miles?

One way to achieve this is by pacing ourselves. Marathon personal best times are produced from runners who deploy an even pace across the course (Hanley, 2016), or by electing to run conservatively early on, then slightly increasing speed during the final 35km (Renfree & Gibson, 2013). In contrast, selecting unsustainable speeds from the start line results in subsequent significant losses of speed in endurance performance (Williams et al., 2016). While some runners put themselves into a faster starting pen, to avoid early funnelling that occurs in a race, this is best avoided. The excitement of the race day can easily take over. This can be worse for men than women; men lose more pace than women over the whole marathon (Deaner et al., 2015; Hanley, 2016). Previous experience helps to sustain an effective pacing strategy execution and all the other decisions needed for accurate exercise regulation (Micklewright, 2010).

Psychologically, race-related coping responses such as thinking about supplementation, social support and willpower all help avoid “hitting the wall” (Buman et al., 2008). Being prepared for handling at least three things going wrong within the race is wise. Positive self-talk (you know, the unspoken chatter that goes on inside your head) can aid “talking yourself out of exhaustion” (Blanchfield et al., 2014). These issues are only just beginning to be understood, so researchers are continuing to explore pacing strategy regulation and the interaction of both physiological and psychological determinants of endurance performance. Importantly, we need to investigate interventions to reduce perceptions of effort when completing demanding endurance events like a marathon.

Emily Williams

References

  • Blanchfield, A.W., Hardy, J., De Morree, H.M., Staiano, W. and Marcora, S.M., 2014. Talking yourself out of exhaustion: the effects of self-talk on endurance performance. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 46(5), pp.998-1007.
  • Buman, M.P., Omli, J.W., Giacobbi Jr, P.R. and Brewer, B.W., 2008. Experiences and coping responses of “hitting the wall” for recreational marathon runners. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 20(3), pp.282-300.
  • Deaner, R.O., Carter, R.E., Joyner, M.J. and Hunter, S.K., 2015. Men are more likely than women to slow in the marathon. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 47(3), p.607.
  • Hanley, B., 2016. Pacing, packing and sex-based differences in Olympic and IAAF World Championship marathons. Journal of Sports Sciences, 34(17), pp.1675-1681.
  • Micklewright, D., Papadopoulou, E., Swart, J. and Noakes, T., 2010. Previous experience influences pacing during 20 km time trial cycling. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 44(13), pp.952-960.
  • Renfree, A. and Gibson, A.S.C., 2013. Influence of different performance levels on pacing strategy during the Women’s World Championship marathon race. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 8(3), pp.279-285.
  • Williams, E.L., Jones, H.S., Sparks, S.A., Marchant, D.C., Midgley, A.W., Bridge, C.A. and McNaughton, L.R., 2016. Deceptive manipulation of competitive starting strategies influences subsequent pacing, physiological status, and perceptual responses during cycling time trials. Frontiers in hysiology, 7, p.536.

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About the Author

Dr Emily Williams

Emily is a Senior Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Physiology. Her research interests include fatigue, pacing strategies and psychophysiological mechanisms of performance.

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