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Breaking through the wall

Tips on training for the Boston Marathon

28/Feb/2012

Mass General Marathon Team Fighting Kids Cancer... One Step at a Time

Thanks to the partnership between John Hancock Financial Services and MassGeneral Hospital for Children, the Marathon Team has raised more than $6.7 million to support pediatric cancer care. Visit the Marathon Team's web site to learn more or support a runner.

Richard Ginsburg, PhD, is the co-director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Sport Psychology Program and the Performance and Character Excellence in Sports (PACES) Institute, and the director of Psychological Services at the MGH Youth Concussion Clinic. A three time runner of the Boston Marathon, Ginsburg shares his training tips and race day strategies.

Finding Motivation for Those Long Runs

For those long runs, it’s nice to have a partner. A partner can be the incentive you need to wake up early or put aside the chores/work/parenting for that weekly long run. Tacking on a food-related outing afterward can also help turn it from a chore to fun.

“I’ve found setting up an exciting thing to do afterwards, like going to a nice brunch, is a great reward and motivator,” Ginsburg said.

Focusing on how good it’s going to feel when you’ve finished is also important. Tackling those long runs is really an accomplishment. You’ve mapped out the run, set a goal, struggled through and finally made it. Overcoming the obstacle of each long run is extremely gratifying.

“It gives you that extra boost to your self esteem,” Ginsburg said.

Breaking Through the Wall

“The Boston Marathon is unique in that you hit that psychological wall right when you in the middle of Heart Break Hill,” Ginsburg said.

Actually, it’s a series of hills in Newtown starting around mile 17 and ending after the actual Heart Break Hill at mile 21. You’re going up and down and up and down and then you hit Heart Break Hill. You may be low on sugar and your muscles are tightening, exhaustion starts to set in. You’re hitting the wall.

How do you fight it from a psychological standpoint?

It’s all about planning.

“I think it’s important to really map out the course. I break it into smaller runs and then I run it,” Ginsburg said. “This way it’s familiar. You know what’s coming and where your breakdown will be. It’ll help you recover.”

Practicing drinking water is also critical, Ginsburg said. Eventually, your water bottle’s going to run out and it’s hard to run and drink from a cup at the same time. Ginsburg’s strategy is to squeeze the mouth of the cup flat like a zipper. Then he puts his head down, keeping the cup below his head, and sips up. He said drinking it this way prevents coughing.

Memorizing some mantras can also help you stay calm and focused. Before the race Ginsburg will write some mantras down on 3x5 index cards to memorize. One of his favorites is to repeat “stride and breathe.”

“I’m really focusing on my form so that I have a good stride and I’m remembering to breathe, and also not fatiguing myself further by getting stressed,” Ginsburg said. 

For a good energy boost, Ginsburg suggested scouting out key landmarks or mile markers during the race to look for.

“I came up with an expression ‘Citgo three to go,’” Ginsburg said. When he hits Beacon Street and sees that sign he knows he only has three miles left, which gives him the boost he needs to finish.

Ginsburg also looks to the crowds for much needed energy boosts. He said you can get the crowd to cheer you along by writing an inspirational expression on your t-shirt. He’s found many members of the crowd will read his shirt and yell it back at him as encouragement.

He also suggests using your friends and family. Find out where they plan on cheering for you, so that you can keep an eye out for them. Ask them to spread out and suggest they position themselves in some locations where you know you might be tired. Nothing gives a boost like hearing your friend and family cheering you on.

Positive thinking is also a key to success. The night before the marathon, sit down and visualize yourself running it. Think about how you’ll feel during each leg and the sense of accomplishment you’ll have when you’ve finished. 

“It’s just a great feeling,” Ginsburg said.

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