Mind Training for the Marathon is a series of sport psychology-based articles by Dr. Michele Kerulis that teaches runners how to use mental toughness training for marathon success. In her first article Dr. Kerulis described five sport psychology skills to help runners plan a strategy for success.
Some factors are out of runners’ control, such as weather conditions and abilities of other runners. However, runners can use controllable behaviors to increase their chances for a successful training run or event. A significant brain-body connection is magnified when athletes practice sport psychology and learn about brain mechanisms related to physical activity.
Here are five tips on how to use behaviors to hack your brain for marathon success.
1. Activate your natural rewards systems. People who exercise on a regular basis tend to report regular positive moods. Exercise stimulates a response in the brain that releases chemicals like neurotransmitters (dopamine and serotonin) and neuropeptides (endorphins). Researchers believe that the link between exercise and a sustained positive mood is related to how often these brain chemicals are released. The more often these chemicals are released, the easier it is for people to access positive emotional states rather than negative states. This reward system is natural because dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins are linked to increased pleasant feelings and decreased unpleasant feelings. For runners, the more often you stick to a training schedule, the more often your brain will release feel-good chemicals (neurotransmitters and neuropeptides). This trains your brain to elicit positive responses in non-running situations, which can result in an overall sense of increased wellbeing, which can be especially helpful during pre-race jitters and during training challenges.
2. Stick to Predictable Trainings. To optimize the natural reward system mentioned above, researchers suggest that runners should schedule trainings that are enjoyable, result in increased heart rate, are non-competitive (gasp!), run with a moderate intensity, and completed in a predictable environment. These factors result in a pleasant state of mind with decreased cognitive anxiety related to training. Creating a predictable schedule and training environment will allow runners to focus their minds and energy on the actual run (technical aspects of running and mental toughness training). In turn, runners can relax and let their natural reward systems (natural release of feel-good chemicals) kick in earlier in their runs.
3. Get Enough Sleep. Experts recommend about 7-8 hours of sleep every night to allow your body to rest and recover. Having a regular sleep schedule will regulate your circadian rhythm (biological clock), which in turn will program your brain and body to properly recover and prepare for the next day while you rest. Put yourself on a sleeping schedule, even on weekends and days when you do not have to wake to an alarm clock. Researchers discovered that pre-race anxiety the day before a race affected athletes’ sleep and negatively affected mood. A regular sleep schedule will help combat some factors that result in pre-race jitters. To combat pre-race jitters the night before an event, begin relaxing a few hours before bedtime, be sure to properly hydrate before bedtime to avoid late night bathroom trips, and ensure that your sleep environment is noise-free so your sleep is not disturbed.
4. Practice positive perception. Some people seem prone to optimism, and others seem prone to pessimism. What is not as commonly known is that you can train your brain to develop optimism as your go-to response. Having a positive and optimistic perspective, or seeing the silver lining in situations, can result in a good mood. Moods influence how the brain processes information: People who are in a good mood are more likely to express emotions in healthy ways. Runners can practice positive perception when training runs and races become challenging. How runners’ respond to physiological reactions of physical activity like fatigue and muscle activation have a direct effect on their ability to complete the race. The silver lining in feeling challenged while running can be expressed emotionally through pride that runners have trained for this very thing (how to move past a challenge). For example, runners who feel fatigue can acknowledge the fatigue, use sport psychology skills to move past the fatigue, and feel pride that they were prepared to face challenges (how optimistic!). This strategy can result in an overall elevated mood, because the predicted practice (tip # 2) allowed for a relaxed brain which will be able to more easily elicit the natural reward system (tip #1). It all comes together in a blend of sport psychology and mind-body connection controlled by runners’ perception of the challenge.
5. Enjoy runner’s high and avoid the crash. Now that you know how to hack your brain and understand how running can effect your brain, you can prepare for runs and prepare for a post-race mindset. The runner’s high is the result of regular training and a commitment to achieving a goal (finishing a marathon) and is especially noticeable during and right after runs. Enjoy the feeling and take pride in your success. But beware of the crash after the high. Many runners report feelings of depression and lack of purpose soon after the event. Dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins, which are related to depression, anxiety, and reduced sensitivity to training pain, can be present in lower levels post-marathon. When you significantly reduce your training your brain may reduce the production of the feel-good chemicals. This reduction can result in a less pleasant mood due to lowered activity. To prepare yourself for the post-marathon decrease, emphasize practicing a positive perception. If you start to notice a less pleasant mood, recall your success during your training and during the event. Recalling the events can help you recall the pleasant mood associated with the events. Be sure to rest your body after the event and then return to regular exercise and create new training goals.
Featured Guest Blogger:
Dr. Michele Kerulis is Program Director of Sport & Health Psychology at Adler University in Chicago. She is a certified consultant through the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (CC-AASP), a member of the United States Olympic Committee Sport Psychology Registry, and a content expert in sport & exercise psychology. Dr. Kerulis is a professor of counseling and sport psychology, an active freelance writer, private practice clinical therapist, and public speaker. Her years of experience as an athlete, fitness professional, and therapist have created the foundation for her belief that the skills necessary to achieve success in sport and performance are the same skills necessary to achieve excellence in life.