Posted by: Joe English | December 6, 2007

Racing: Hitting the wall and late mile motivation (part II)

[This is part II of a two-part article. Click here to go to the start.]

It’s on the brain
With all of that said, there are mental aspects to the late miles of the race as well. If you think carefully about what I just wrote, I said that it should be getting progressively harder to run the same pace throughout the race.

Think of yourself doing push-ups for a minute. When you’re doing push-ups, each one feels a little bit harder. You start to feel like you weigh 500 pounds. You don’t, in fact, weigh any more than you did when you starting doing your push-ups. The reason you feel heavier is that your muscles are getting fatigued. This is the same thing that’s happening in a marathon. After taking thousands and thousands of steps, your muscles are getting fatigued and each step just starts to feel a whole later harder.

Some of the people that I work with call these late miles the “bite me” stage of the race. It’s the time when they’re still running, but it’s getting really darn hard and if you ask them how they’re doing they’re most likely going to chew your head off. This is the point when a good strategy for dealing with the late miles of the race comes in. And it also gets us back to the second part of the question.

Staying motivated late in a race with limited crowd support
Once you’ve entered the “bite me” zone and you’re running on fumes, your primary job is to find a way to keep yourself going. Some people really thrive on the support of crowds, while others will want music, or the support of family, or they may just want to quietly struggle through by themselves.

The reader asking the question said that she got something special from the support of the crowds. The question here is WHAT are you drawing from the crowd to keep you moving late in the race? That’s hard to say, but I might venture to guess that it is in part a distraction from the pain and anguish that you’re feeling in your body. And, in part, it’s a sense of pride that people are cheering you on as you’re moving toward your goal. There could be other reasons too, I suppose. I’ve had people express to me before that they felt almost embarrassed to stop and walk in front of spectators, even though they desperately wanted to walk.

This question is something to reflect on: what is it that YOU were getting from these crowds that you need to replace?

From there, I think the next most important thing to find is what really motivates YOU to keep moving. Something got you out there on that marathon course in the first place. Late in the race, you should be pulling out that original motivation and reminding yourself why you’re there. Nike uses the term “power song” to talk about a piece of music that gets runners pumped. I’d say that you need to find your “power nugget” – that little piece of motivation that will keep you going and then concentrate on that. For example, when you’re feeling the bite me blues, you might think about all of the training that you did to get this far, how much fun and enjoyment you get from your training, or how far you’ve come in your health or weight to get this far.

Here are some other strategies that you might want to try:
Control your focus – you own your focus. If you’re focusing on the pain, you’re amplifying it. Take your mind elsewhere.

Focus on your form – Instead of concentrating abstractly on keeping moving, think about your arm movements, your body position, your cadence or your breathing. Try to identify something to focus on for awhile and keep your mental energy there.

Break the problem down – rather than thinking about finishing the last six miles, think about getting through the next ten minutes or getting to the next mile marker. Your mind may do better focusing on a smaller part of the total task.

Think about something else – Once I was escorting a runner who was in a seriously bad place so we played a game together. I let her ask me a personal question every time we passed a mile-marker. She got so wrapped up in thinking about the questions that she wanted to ask me that the miles clicked by before we knew it.

Give yourself goals and try to meet them – if you set a goal to run the marathon in X hours and X minutes, and if this is a reasonable goal for you, pull that goal out in the closing miles and remember it. If you don’t really have a goal to focus on late in the race, it’s easy to default to “I just want to finish” and let yourself slow down or take breaks.

Pull out that mental nugget – when the going gets tough, pull out that ultimate motivator and focus on it.

Eat – if your brain is really in the bite-me zone, take in some more calories. Your brain needs food too.

Truthfully, what motivates each of you late in a race is different, but something does motivate you. You wouldn’t make it through those lonely 20 mile training runs by yourself, if you didn’t have something pushing you. It may feel harder on race day, but try to think about it from just the opposite view-point. It’s harder, because you’re doing something unique and special and that you don’t get to do very often.

Try to think about how great it is on race day. This day is the one day, or maybe one of two or three days in a year, that define you as a marathon runner. You’ve devoted so much of your time to training, but race-day lets you validate that and be proud of what you’ve done. Get excited about the fact that you’re challenging yourself and that you’re ultimately going to win the challenge.

And just keep going.

Your questions and comments are always welcomed!

See also:
More thoughts on late marathon miles

Coach Joe English, Portland Oregon USA



  1. […] post continues. Click here to go to part […]

  2. Joe,
    You hit all the key points on this topic. Your ideas for dissociative techniques of focusing are critical. There are important things for runners to know about this. These techniques have to be practiced during training otherwise you will not be as effective at it… your mind will stray back to the discomfort you are sensing. Only the smallest number of runners ever practice the mental aspects of training. This is their downfall. The reason crowds work so well to keep us going is because it is an artificial “lift” – it doesn’t matter if it’s social pressure (I don’t want to stop in front o f them) or enjoying their cheers. Mental techniques are like having a tool chest. Not all work on all situations… you have to practice and have at your beck and call many ways (like ones you mentioned and so many more).

    Pain has been found to have an extremely strong psychological component. Remember, pain exists as a mechanism to protect us. Yet, in physical endeavors it often crops up long before any real damage is done.
    So, you have to practice working through that discomfort and continue running “through it”.

    Finally, I have to weigh in on a training aspect. Too many marathoners dream up a time to run, then start training, and they make two major mistakes. They have no idea if the pace or time goal they have chosen is even realistic or not. They hardly ever (and somenever) train at that goal pace in progressively longer training runs. Of course they will hit the wall if the pace is too fast for what is reasonable or if they have not trained sufficiently at that pace. It’s not about the miles they’ve run… it’s about how they have run their miles.
    Coach Dean

  3. Fantastic insights as always Coach Dean!

    Thank you!

    Coach Joe

  4. I’ve never run a marathon, but I’ve given birth and worked with a homebirth midwife. When women begin to tire toward the end of long labors, we feed them a spoonful of honey. I used honey during my last labor and later following chemo to give my body an extra boost of healthy energy to go the “extra mile.”

    Thank-you for the great insights! (Would honey be appropriate for a runner??)

  5. This is a great question from IAMSAMIAM above.

    I’ve often thought of the similarities between childbirth and endurance running. Certainly both require incredible stamina and determination to get through.

    You’re right that giving sugar will bring up energy levels – in particular giving more energy to the brain, which will make the person feel like they thinking more clearly.

    The question about honey is a really good one. I’m going to take that up in a training article seperately.

    Coach Joe

  6. Great analysis, Coach. I’m an introverted runner, and toward the end of marathons, I’m so mentally focused on ‘step-by-step’ that I have a really hard time appreciating crowds or distractions. Whatever it takes, I guess. I’m going to try eating more at these times to see if that helps also.

    Thank you!!


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