Marathon training : mental focus for runners

In my last post I talked about my mental focus being a bit off, so I thought I would have a bit of a re-read of the book Grateful Running. In the book Dr. Grayson Kimball discusses this very common problem in runners, along with some tips on how to improve for race day. Here are some of the tips I’m going to employ to help me sharpen my focus for race day:

Losing Focus vs Changing Focus:

Losing focus while running is a common problem, especially in long distance runners. It is simply very difficult to continue concentrating on the singular task of running for that period of time. However, Dr. Grayson Kimball says runners “never truly lose their focus, they simply change their focus”.

This is, for me at least, an important distinction to make. Losing something implies being unable to find it again. Changing focus implies it can be simply changed back. The latter is a much more positive way to look at the issue and doesn’t imply a negative outcome if my focus happens to change. My issue is in controlling my focus and applying it to my running.


Change your focus!

Changing the Channel:

Like a TV, a runners focus can be changed, sometimes by external events around you (think of this as someone walking into the room and clicking the TV remote, away from what you were watching) or by internal processes (think of this as channel surfing, you’re seeing a lot but not actually watching anything).

During the hours of a marathon your focus will change countless times. The important thing is to realise when it changes and to switch back to your ‘running channel’. Kimball suggests that you make sure that whatever you switch back to is a positive help to your running. Tuning back into a stream of negative thoughts or your ‘pain channel’ isn’t going to help. When I find that my ‘channel’ has changed, I immediately ‘change back’ by going through a little mantra that I picked up from my coach at The Running School while I was rehabilitating from a bad case of ITB. It was originally to help me focus on my running form, but I adapted it into a mantra for long runs: “U. A.B.C.”.

U actually has two meanings. The first is ‘You‘. It is my trigger to ‘check-in’. Where am I, how am I, what’s my pace? This re-engages me with my run and changes my focus back to my ‘running channel’. Once I’m ‘back’ I go through the mantra:

U is for Upright

check my posture, make sure I’m not slouching, leaning back or twisting my torso too much. Upright with a slight lean looking straight ahead about 30m in front of me is good.

A is for Arms

Check my arms, make sure they are engaged, have a good drive rearwards and are controlling my cadence. Arms that are strong (but not tense), engaged wrists and relaxed hands is good.

B is for Breathing

Check my breathing is controlled, rhythmic and deep into the chest. Even and without panting is good. Except for the last mile – then ‘balls to the wall’ all out effort and panting like a dying horse is OK!

C is for Cycling

Check my gait, make sure I’m cycling my legs through, my knee lift is good, I’m engaging my glutes and hamstrings and I’m not scrubbing my feet as fatigue sets in. A smooth efficient action that doesn’t rely on my calf muscles for propulsion is good.

This little chant is a good way to bring my focus back to my running, and is a good example of associative thinking to manage and improve performance.


This chap is highly focussed on changing the channel. He’s probably a runner…

Associative vs Dissociative Thinking

Associative thinking:

Refers to reviewing your current situation and keeps you focussed in the current moment. You are purposely associating thoughts with responses and actual data from your senses. You can’t be daydreaming if you are intentionally reviewing factors like breathing rate, muscle fatigue (Internal associative thinking) or race strategy, mile markers, refuelling points (External associative thinking).

Generally speaking, I am able to complete associative thinking while running (my “U. A.B.C.” chant is an example of this). The issue I found on my runs last week was unstructured dissociative thinking. Daydreaming. I can’t remember what any of it was about, I just remember the feeling of ‘checking in’, seeing my pace way off and that hundreds of metres had passed me by. It is this I need to address.

Dissociative thinking:

refers to focussing on things that are irrelevant to your current task of running. If left to just happen, you’ll end up daydreaming and your race will suffer. Interestingly, Kimball notes that dissociative thinking, if used in a structured way, can be advantageous as a ‘purposeful distraction’. The idea being that if you can distract your mind from discomfort or boredom, it has the ability to enhance your run, especially if you think about something that has a positive impact on your mood. For instance, by singing to yourself the words from your favourite inspirational song you are distracting yourself and lifting your spirits (Internal dissociative thinking), or for some serious distraction, you can try external dissociative thinking – count numbers of purple shoes, people with headbands, anything that keeps you focussed but also distracted. A word of warning, dissociative thinking can be bad. Do it too much and you will prevent associative thinking and you can miss the signals that allow you to manage your performance.

Dissociative thinking can be a useful distraction, but don't drift off to la-la land!

Dissociative thinking can be a useful distraction, but don’t drift off to la-la land!

Onwards to Palma de Mallora

Where I need to work is on structuring my dissociative thinking and doing it at appropriate times in the run. I don’t have a ready answer as to how successful I’m going to be, I just know that I am going to have to focus more on my associative thinking and only do dissociative thinking if it is structured. Hopefully recognising the problem and knowing some solutions will allow me to put them into practice on race day.

In other news:

In case you hadn’t noticed, I’ve just been able to dissociate myself from my entire journey on the underground to work, to my meetings, and then back home to write this post. I’ve also found that writing during this week and the last has given a good distraction from the ‘taper crazies’ as I’ve got something to fill my extra time and distract me from the race! Double bonus!


What tricks to you use to keep your focus during your long runs/races?

Do you have any favourite dissociative thinking tricks to distract you when the going gets tough and you need a mental break from a long run/race?


Happy running everyone!


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About getgoing-getrunning

Hi, I’m Bernie and I’m a just guy who writes about the things which get me going and get me running, even though my running is never going to result in me standing on a podium!

Posted on October 17, 2013, in Blog, Marathon Training, Mental Training, Training Tips and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. This is a great post! Thanks. I look forward to using these tips soon (hopefully). I’ll at least bookmark it for future reference.

  2. Some interesting things here Bernie, I’m going to have to re-read a few times to get it all in. I love your mantra U, ABC. I shall borrow that one. Mantras do it for me – I have lots. They help me to stay on track and to keep focused. Thanks for another really helpful post.

    Not long until your marathon – I shall be cheering you from here, so be sure to listen for that Aussie twang in the cheer squad 🙂

    • Thanks Annie! Yes, a bit of information overload in that post. It’s a lot to take in and remember.
      I’ll listen out for that lilting Tassie accent as I turn around at the outer marker and start heading back to the finish line.
      Thanks for the support!

  3. I like the idea of “changing channels” when the tape in my running head goes negative. I’ll have to try that during my next race.

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