Monday, March 8, 2010

Getting psyched up for the Boston Marathon

A Mass General psychologist offers tips on preparing for the big race

Richard Ginsburg, PhD, co-director of the Sport Psychology Program at Mass General, psychologist and author, has advice for MassGeneral Hospital for Children's Marathon Team: Think positively. According to Ginsburg, running requires a strong mental focus – what makes someone run successfully, in addition to their training and ability, is their state of mind at the time that they are running.

Ginsburg, who teamed up with Mass General colleague Stephen Durant and Boston University colleague, Amy Baltzell, co-authored Whose Game is It Anyway?: A Guide to Helping Your Child Get the Most from Sports, Organized by Age and Stage. While the book focuses primarily on suggestions for parents, Ginsburg indicates that the material on peak performance may be helpful to athletes in any stage of their athletic career. In particular, he states that many runners can benefit from using a variety of sport psychology techniques such as positive thinking, goal setting and visualization in their training and race preparation.

The Right Mantra

Ginsburg, who has counseled athletes ranging from the youth to the professional levels, suggests that incorporating positive phrases while training and competing can be particularly helpful over the course of such a long run. To help maintain focus, some athletes may like the phrase, "Keep the pace." Other athletes may use positive phrases or mantras such as "Stride and breathe," or when running up Heartbreak Hill "Finish strong," when they approach Fenway and have about a mile to go. For those runners who respond to landmarks, he suggests that when they first see the Citgo sign, they can say, "Citgo, 3 to Go." Repeating these mantras can help runners maintain a positive focus that helps them reach the finish line and reduce some of the physical fatigue that comes from running a marathon.

Practice Runs

Because preparation is so important, Ginsburg advises all runners to do a practice run on parts of the race course before doing the actual marathon. Setting goals to build endurance to run longer distances on the course can really build confidence. Also knowing and seeing the course before the run can help create more comfort, predictability and familiarity when running the race. In particular, knowing where the hills are in the Boston Marathon is crucial so runners can pace themselves to get through them.

For those runners who have never run a marathon, getting race experience is crucial. "Beginners should start with a 10k marathon before doing anything more," he suggests. The adrenaline surge that comes from being in the presence of over 20,000 runners can lead some folks into overcharge. Knowing how to modulate the excitement and stay focused and well-paced is crucial to beginning marathoners.


Another strategy Ginsburg encourages is visualization. Runners should imagine what they look like as they are training and competing at their best. Seeing their ideal stride and visualizing themselves crossing that finish line on Boylston Street can help carry them through.

While Ginsburg suggests that runners should run their own race, this does not mean that they should not have a running buddy. Some runners may choose to run next to someone who is running their same pace. For beginner runners especially, running side by side with an advanced runner can be discouraging and lead to early exhaustion. Ginsburg advises that beginners seek out other runners with a similar pace to keep them company.

Whatever the scenario, Ginsburg indicates that training for and running a marathon, while time-consuming, can be an absolutely wonderful experience that can serve as a valuable metaphor for accomplishing a variety of goals in life.

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