#5in5forMind Update – The Psychology of Endurance Running.

My decision to run 5 marathons in five consecutive days, has a touch of the bonkers about it, and I’m the first to admit it does; I sometimes stop and ask myself ‘what the hell am I thinking?’ 

I can comfortably run a half marathon, but the thought of doing twice that distance in one go still feels daunting.

The initial concerns were mainly physical; thinking about eating properly, and recovery between runs (which I think will include the dreaded ice bath)!  However, there is also going to be a psychological side to this challenge, which will need equal consideration.

The other week, I was lucky enough to be connected to the Sports Science team at the University of Hertfordshire (by Juanita Prescott from Stevenage Leisure Limited), and I had a great chat about the psychology of endurance challenges with Stephen Pack, who is a HCPC Registered Sport and Exercise Psychologist.

Stephen highlighted some key areas that endurance athletes face, including sleeping, physical pain, issues with feet, cramps, and nutrition; he also mentioned hallucinations, however he said this is more for extreme challenges like crossing the South Pole (now there’s an idea for a challenge!!!).

Most of the list made sense, especially where pain and physical discomfort are concerned, but nutrition and sleep were a bit of a surprise; you’d think that running a marathon would tire you out so much that sleep would not be a problem; as for eating, you would assume that the exercise will make you hungry enough that you would be starving by the end of it.

The main issue seems to be the effect that fatigue has on the body; when it’s tired the body can struggle to cope with some of the basic functions such as digesting solid food and sleeping.

There is also the focus and excitement elements, especially where sleep is concerned; Stephen said he finds that a lot of the athletes he works with can spend time focusing on what they did during the day, in particular things they may have done wrong, or not as well as they wanted, and this can keep them up at night.

Excitement is self-explanatory, we’ve all been there; we are so excited about the events of the following day that no matter how hard we try, we just can’t sleep.  I’m not sure how excited I’ll be when I hit day three or day four, but we’ll see what happens.

Focus is also going to play a big role during the challenge; each run will be between 4 – 4.5 hours in length, and this is a long time to keep focused; the brain has a natural tendency to wander, even more so as we start to get tired.

I’ve had some different experiences as far as focus goes when I’m running; generally, I look around me, take in, and enjoy the world around me.  I get to run in the countryside, so when I get off the main roads, I try to take in the sights and sounds as much as I can (without falling into a pothole!).

Sometimes I have a battle with my brain, especially if I’ve been feeling anxious before I go for a run.  It can sometimes take me 5k to just get my head sorted; the other day I went for a run and had a mild panic attack 4k in and had to stop.  I stopped on a track next to a field and watched the lambs for a few minutes; once I had calmed down and got my breathing back under control, I set off again.  The rest of the run was not a thing of beauty, especially emotionally, but I pushed on to complete 21km.

Another thing to think about is the route I run; the first marathon will be fine because it is one big lap around Milton Keynes; the psychological challenge comes when you run a course that is more than one lap.  I once ran a half marathon on a short, 4 lap course; the problem was that you had to run past the start finish line at the end of each lap, and it was really hard to run away from the finish line each time, especially as I got tired. 

The last four runs of my challenge will be close to home and my normal route is half marathon distance, so I may have to do that twice, which may mean being close to home and then running away from it again!

To help with the focus whilst running, Stephen suggested a trigger of some kind; he said that some people put an elastic band on their wrist and flick it when the focus drifts.  He also suggested a word or phrase that I can say when I feel the shift in focus.  In the past, when I’ve been tired whilst on a run, I would say ‘mind and body working together’; this helps me to bring my focus back, and I start bringing everything I can in to help out my legs, including my arms, core and my mind.  Sometimes I’ve been known to shout this out loud, but only when in open fields, where the only strange looks I get are from cows.

Stephen also recommended Pranayama (Yoga) Breathing to help with focus and sleep.  Pranayama Breathing helps to clear the physical and emotional obstacles we all carry in our bodies.  It frees our breath and the flow of prana – life energy.  I’m pretty sure there will be a lot of physical and emotional obstacles both before and during my challenge, so I’m definitely going to explore this a bit more; I’ll let you know how I get on.

Another potential issue that Stephen highlighted was the sense of isolation (again, he felt this was more related to the bigger challenges).  He mentioned it because endurance athletes can tend to get too focused on the challenge, almost like tunnel vision, especially when they get tired, so it’s important to try and step out of this; he suggested having someone to review each run with, so Kim will get to hear all about each run….. lucky her!

I’m not too bothered about the isolation long distance running can bring; I struggle with social anxiety, which means I always go running by myself anyway, so I’m quite used to that feeling.  I do say hello to the people I run past, which gives me a bit of engagement with others, but the speed means I don’t have to stop to talk.

It was great to chat to Stephen, and to get his valuable insight, it has given me lots to think about, and work on in the coming weeks.

I’ll keep you updated on my progress.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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