Experiencing A Marathon

Recollecting a personal experience:
Re-running a marathon race that gave hints about limiting factors

Let’s imagine running and even winning a marathon. Perhaps one that was run in 2 hours and 32 minutes, on a day in the late fall, in the mid 40’s, and withcalm winds. The runner’s pre-race plan had an objective of finishing with a time of 2 hours and 30 minutes, which required running at a pace slightly less than 5 minutes and 44 seconds a mile. For tactics, the plan was to break away from the leaders somewhere after the  half way turn-around point in the race. Consequently, he might be running solo from then on. His leg effort would have to be continually and substantially increased to maintain these planned pace splits.  Toleration of pain and fatigue was to be emphasized in the last half of the race, with the use of previously rehearsed coping skills that acknowledge increasing discomfort rather than dwelling on how much more the irritating pain had become .

During the race, the runner once again noticed from the start that the required mental motor drive had to progressively increased just to maintain his pre-planned running pace. From training and racing, he knew that this increase in effort would be required to achieve the pace splits. Increased effort was to be accompanied by escalating tiredness and pain.

(Read more…)

And what was it actually like to run this marathon?

Prior to race day: In retrospect, many of the training sessions and previous races were rehearsals for the pacing and mental elements of the strategy plan. Training had emphasized endurance development of motor units and energy metabolism; it also provided opportunities for relaxation rehearsal. For example, running different distances over and over again, which were timed, developed his sense of pace and endurance capacity while he practiced a relaxed running style. His answers to “What is my pace?” and “How smooth am I running?” became the signs he could use to frequently evaluate his performance.

Also, when he ran distances such as 15 miles, are a pace greater than the anticipated average marathon pace, he developed his skills for tolerating an ever increasing intensity of discomfort. His answers to “How am I feeling?” became the symptoms that he was to expect during the race. This race’s strategic planning was the result of many discussions with several local runners who were national class marathon runners.

The pre-race rituals were very complex and highly structured. They employed physical neuromuscular warm-ups not only stretching and loosening up the running musculature and also the locomotor monitoring of pace. Part of the warm-up included meditation-like practices that resulted in a focused altered state similar to a trance. His warm-up included much internal dialogue using affirmations for getting “psyched” for the race. Much more important was his mental rehearsal of relaxation techniques for use during the last half of the race. Also self-talk was rehearsed for re-gaining a positive attitude, if required,

After the start, the important tasks were to avoid being jostled and to settle into the race pace. The first involved attuning to the position of others, and the second was related to perceiving running speed. With the latter, there were these questions: “How fast am I going?” and “Is my running pace going to be ‘faster’ or ‘slower’ than the [pace] split?” The answer to the first question was “yes,” and a decision was made to continue with this pace. His ‘drive’ to match his initial speed with the pace strategy had been excessive, and later it had to be dampened to run closer to the pre-planned pace. On-going was his self-talk that emphasized relaxation skills to minimize the use of auxiliary muscles and different thoughts that were used to dampen and focus his mental attitude about racing.

During the middle of race, the runner asked himself even more questions. He became more aware of answers not related  ‘drive’ symptoms and now associated with leg tiredness and pain symptoms. These intensified locally and later spread throughout his body. A more crucial question was ”Can this pace be maintained [over the second and third quarters]?” As he increased his effort to maintain his pace, interestingly he caught up to the front of the first pack. In the beginning of the third quarter (after the halfway turn-around), he made an increased effort to ‘break free’ of the first pack and then ‘relaxed’ thereby returning to the previous effort. No strategic mismatch for pace or feelings occurred during this part of the race. Mentally, the runner’s mood remained quite positive, and the increasing symptoms of pain, aching muscle, etc., were as expected. No changes for his mental plan were made.

Running the final six miles tested the runner’s marathon limits. With the runner now having a four minute lead with four miles to go, following the pre-planned pace and mental tactics became most important. First, locomotor monitoring continued and became more concentrated on race pace and running style. For this final quarter of the race, his first question was “How fast am I running?” along with the question: “Can I maintain this pace to the end?” His answer was, “I’m running solo, and I will try my best.” Second, emotional monitoring noticed a large increase in the symptom of aching everywhere that predominated over feeling being very, very weary. He assessed the increase of leg and overall pain as moderate with intensified leg tiredness as moderate and increased overall tiredness as somewhat severe. Also he noticed a small loss of motivation and was aware of a heightened aversion to running. Negative feelings associated with ‘drive’ symptoms were noticed more frequently, such as, “I wish this was over”.  Third, he made a series of determined, prospective decisions to keep his pace as fast as possible to be close to the planned pace. And he dogged overcame an intense desire to “slack off the pace.” Fourth, he strongly applied his coping skills. The most important tactic was for him to run as relaxed as possible while using a lot of “self-screaming and fight-song singing” while increasing his effort to minimize the slowing of his pace. This tactic was coupled with an increasing internal dialogue for tolerating pain “only a short while more”. He rounded the last corner on the race course, saw the finish line, shifted into his gliding “finish kick”, and heard a personal record time of 2:32 announced as he crossed the finish line.

Factors that limit endurance performance

From the start of race until the last four miles, the runner’s race pace did not decrease due to his progressively increasing his effort to activate running muscles. Also his recalled a parallel escalation of symptoms for pain and tiredness. Throughout the race, some of his most important questions were “Am I on pace?”, “How am I handling pain and tiredness?”, “Will I be able to maintain this pace?”, and “What trick shall I use to deal with [overall] aching?” And the answers indicated that some of the most important limiting factors were the following:

  • weak wobbly legs and a greatly increased muscular drive (i.e., effort),
  • severe overall tiredness,
  • moderate leg and overall pain,
  • a slight loss of motivation, and
  • definitely wanting to be doing something else than running.

Questions about mechanisms that result in these limiting factors

All these limiting factors were anticipated, and much practice was done during training to monitor them and to develop coping skills for each. These factors could well be related to the critical elements of the neurobiological systems involved in marathon running. What important questions can be asked to help identify these critical elements?

  1. During the marathon, what changes in the neurobiological mechanisms result in the report of increased tirednessand pain. These changes in subjective report are presumed to be connected to the some basic, debilitating changes of specific locomotor and other system processes.
  2. What are the processes that set the cadence and stride length for a given running pace,and how are they monitored to provide signs that running pace was being maintainedor has slowed? Again, changes in these processes will aid in identifying the criticalelements involved.
  3. Are signs and symptoms compared to those anticipated from prior experience? If yes,how do changes in the processes involved with these comparisons suggestabout these critical elements?
  4. What motivational signals coming from monitoring and comparing are integrated into decisionsabout maintaining or altering performance relative to the race’s strategic plan?The sources of these signals might point to some of these critical elements.
  5. How is self-talk involved in maximizing performance? These processes involvedin the dialogue of positive and negative self-talk may provide hints about critical elements.
  6. How can symptoms be tolerated and can performance be improved? The design and use of copingskills could hint at these critical elements.


This article summarizes some of the limiting factors and hints at their mechanisms which limit endurance performance. This is done via a detailed personal marathon experience.

  • Throughout this race this marathon runnermonitored how he was feeling, i.e. his symptoms, that evaluated his level of distress and also noticed how fast he was running, i.e. a sign, that evaluated if he was close to his preplanned
  • race pace (Go to the article on monitoring signs and symptoms).
  • When he monitored these symptoms and signs, like most runners, he utilized his self-talk, which consists of an on-going dialogue of questions and answers. (Go to the article on using self-talk).
  • Self-talk helped him to stubbornly adhere to his two-part strategy plan, that consisted of many preplanned pace splits and many mental tactics to maintain or revise race performance as needed (Go to the article on planning ahead).

Thus, this the contents of this article could be a basis for inquiring about the changes in critical elements of the locomotor, emotional, and other systems that  determine endurance performance. (Go to this section on Limiting Mechanisms)

1 Phil Weiser provided this information based on his diary and recollections. He has been a national class distance runner. His personal records for running a mile is 4 minutes 15 seconds, for 15 km is 48 minutes 23 seconds, and for a marathon is 2 hours 29 minutes. He also has run 11.2 miles in one hour.

(Return to Dealing with Discomfort)

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