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The marathon mindset

| Saturday, May 4, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Christopher Horner
Runners begin the 2012 Pittsburgh Marathon Sunday May 6, 2012, along Liberty Avenue downtown. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review

Aimee Kimball is director of mental training for UPMC Sports Medicine, a certified consultant with the Association for Applied Sport Psychology and a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee's Sports Psychology Registry. With the Dick's Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon scheduled for Sunday, Kimball spoke to the Trib regarding the mental rigors of running a marathon.

Q: Is there a typical mindset for someone running a marathon?

A: I think it depends on if you are new to it or if you are seasoned at it. The people that tend to be newer, I think one of the things that helps them the most is how hard the training is. Often it's harder than the marathon itself, so the mindset is, “I didn't go through all that to give up now.” That mindset involves a lot of positive self-talk — “I can do this, I've trained for it, I'm prepared for it.” When you're a veteran, the mindset changes to improvement, to getting to certain times. It's more of a competitive mindset than a feel-good mindset.

Q: When runners get a second wind, is that more physiological or psychological in nature?

A: I think it's a little of both. I don't know the physiological so much, but psychologically speaking, after a certain point people just stop fighting what's going on with them. It's almost as if they don't have the energy to think about it anymore, so they just run. They're not thinking, “My body hurts. Am I going to make it?” They just go with the flow.

Q: Is a certain amount of self-doubt and discomfort virtually guaranteed no matter how experienced a runner might be?

A: Yeah. You'll be uncomfortable. The normal human body is not meant to run distances like that. You can do it, but if you go in thinking that it's not going to hurt, that it's not going to be painful, you're kidding yourself. But the more you focus on discomfort, the more uncomfortable you're going to be. When you're focusing on how tired you are, or how your calves are burning, that just amplifies all the negative feelings.

Q: How do you not focus on those negative feelings?

A: When you start to realize you are tired, have something else you can focus on instead. Maybe start counting your steps, sing a song. Choose a different focus rather than continuing to dwell on the negative.

Q: When they cross the finish line, is it a virtual certainty that most runners will be just as spent emotionally as they are physically?

A: I would say so. Some of them it's just the pride they have of having done it; some of them it's the thought that they never have to do it again. When you physically and mentally put everything you can, you have, into something, then there is certain to be some emotion at the end of all that.

Q: Do you think runners are so focused on the physical extremes of marathon racing that they tend to overlook the mental challenges until they are in the race?

A: Yes. I think a lot of people spend their time physically preparing, particularly if they are a first- or second-time runner. But if they address the mental side of it, they'll be able to run the race stronger. They will be able to overcome doubts and negative thoughts. The mental aspect isn't necessarily more important (than physical preparation) but it's a key component to having a successful run.

Eric Heyl is a staff writer for Trib Total Media (412-320-7857 or eheyl@tribweb.com).

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