Two Types of Focus

Surely, every runner who contemplates doing a marathon understands that it’s going to take a good bit of training to get his or her body into shape to handle 26.2 miles of running. And, surely, they also anticipate that this training is going to involve some long distance runs.

I’ve even known one or two, possibly deranged, people who thought that they should do several runs longer than 26 miles to make sure that they could run 26 miles on race day. (No, it didn’t make sense to me either.) What the first-time marathoner may not appreciate is that it’s just as important to prepare your mind for a marathon.

Why is it important to do this?

Well, 50% of the finishers in a typical marathon will be out on the course for 4 or more hours, with 5-6 hours not uncommon. Let’s face it: 4- 6 hours is a long time to be on your feet doing anything, let alone something as strenuous as running. Long runs of 2-3 hours will develop the mental toughness needed to keep going when fatigue, boredom, hunger, or whatever starts urging you to call it a day.

Longer runs also provide you the opportunity to experiment a bit. You’ll learn about your body and the critical aspects of distance running like getting used to taking carbohydrate gels, how often and how much water to drink, the use of anti-chafing lubricants, what kind of socks to wear if it’s rainy, and the like.

It is never advisable to try something in a marathon that you’ve never tried on a long run a few times. Let’s just say, that if you’ve never eaten orange slices or drunk a cup of beer in the middle of a run, I wouldn’t advise leaping at the opportunity if it’s presented to you at the 18-mile point in the marathon.

Although what I’ve written seems like it’s directed to those hoping to run the marathon in 4 hours or more, it applies equally to more experienced runners (such as those who ran long distance track or cross-country in college) who are shooting for a sub-3-hour marathon. For such runners, the mental component of the marathon has one more crucial aspect to it--the necessity to focus and stay focused during the marathon.

Two words often arise when discussing the mental part of running a marathon: “association” and “disassociation.”

Association & Disassociation

Disassociation refers to turning your mind away from the act of running and toward thoughts and images entirely apart from the marathon (for example, chatting with other runners, enjoying the scenery, listening to tunes on an iPod, or imagining kicking back before a football game on TV). My guess is that the huge majority of runners in a marathon are disassociating from their fatigue and aches during the run.

However, the elite runners--those who are hoping to qualify for Boston or the Olympic Trials, or even “break three hours”--need to practice association. When a runner associates, he or she is focusing on pace, fluidity of stride, aches, competitors, race strategy, thirst, course conditions, and so on. Association means focusing on those aspects of one’s internal signals and external environment, and making ongoing adjustments to produce the best outcome. Doing this in a 5K or a 10K race is a fairly simple matter; it’s much harder to do for 2 or more hours. You must hone this ability during long runs to be ready to employ it during the race.

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