For almost three years, 32-year old Amanda Hicks has been trying to break the three-hour mark in the marathon. On several occasions, she’s come within minutes of her goal time, but seemingly no matter what she tries, that barrier remains elusive. “I have a sticky note with curled edges on my refrigerator that says 2:59:59,” she says. “I’m tired of seeing it there.”
For many runners, Hicks’ story is relatable. Setting a particular time goal and then throwing everything you have at it, only to come up short, is a common phenomenon, according to sports psychologist Justin Ross of Denver-based Mind Body Health. “There’s a lot of research on setting a reference point and then having a loss aversion tied to it,” he says. “Marathons, in particular, afford people a crisp, tangible goal to go after.”
There’s nothing wrong with having a goal time, of course, and working toward it. The problem comes with the emotional attachment to it, which sometimes works against you. “Runners place an attachment to the pain of not reaching their goal,” Ross says. “Then if they don’t hit that number, they begin to build it up and start putting pressure on themselves.”
Hicks admits this applies to her. “I know my goal is within reach,” she says. “But sometimes, I start to think that maybe I’m not meant to break three hours.”
In fact, Hicks wonders if she hasn’t self-sabotaged in some of her races. “It feels like around mile 22 or 23, I’ll get stage fright,” she says. “I tell myself I’ll be happy with a slower time and don’t finish it out like I should.”
This in spite of the fact that Hicks has worked on her mental game as hard as her physical. “I read up on the mental aspect of racing before Chicago this year, and felt like my head was there,” she says. “My body was running my race pace without my even looking at my watch. I don’t know what happened.”
Statistics from a 2015 study of marathon times by economists from U.C. Berkley and the University of Chicago show that many runners “cluster” around specific goal times. Big spikes show up in the data on the one hour, half hour, and even 10-minute points, revealing that most runners are aiming for a time-related goal.
Also tracked in the data is the speed runners reach in the final 2.2K. For those close to a round number—likely a goal time—they were often able to summon the mental energy to pick up the pace in an effort to reach it. Runners like Hicks are painfully aware of this, but don’t know how to get to that place.
Dennis Polmateer, a 33-year-old runner from Denver, has been in Hicks’ shoes, but recently figured out how to change his outcome. “I found I had mental blocks around certain time goals,” he says. “In training, for instance, I found my mind stopped me from running under a 6-minute pace. It was scary to see it on paper and then try to execute it in practice.”
Polmateer says that he couldn’t convince himself that he was fast enough to achieve those paces. “When I started marathons, I was a four-hour runner, so it became nerve-wracking to think I could run sub-sixes,” he explains. “In the marathon, I’d reach the halfway point in PR time, but then tell myself I couldn’t sustain it.”
After too many frustrating races, Polmateer turned to Ross for guidance. “He showed me how I was focused on numbers and perceiving certain paces as a failure,” he says. “He taught me to match my effort to my measure of success.”
In other words, Polmateer learned that he was getting plenty out of his workouts as long as he was putting the effort in, in spite of what the numbers on his watch said. “This was a big one for me,” he admits. “Now I know that I’m not a failure if I don’t hit a certain number.”
One of the issues for runners, says Ross, is learning that not every workout or race is going to go according to plan, and that it’s not a deal breaker. “If you let numbers dictate what you are capable of, you can train yourself not to reach your goal,” he says. “The cool thing is that it’s all about our perceived relationship with numbers, something we can change.”
Ross counsels runners to shift their reference points with goals. “So if your goal is four hours, for instance, shift it to 3:55,” he suggests. “It helps you create a new relationship with numbers.”
He also recommends unplugging from the technology that gives us so much numerical feedback. “Having all this data can create mental blocks,” he says. “It’s important for all of us to leave the watch in the drawer sometimes and get back to enjoying running for running.”
Polmateer readjusted his mental state and ultimately achieved a 2:49 PR at the Twin Cities Marathon. “Instead of worrying about numbers, I had faith in the process,” he says. “I went into my races with a more positive attitude, knowing I wasn’t a failure for not hitting certain times.”
Hicks, in the meantime, isn’t throwing in the towel any time soon and will target this spring’s Boston Marathon for her next attempt at cracking the three-hour mark. Her new approach is similar to Ross’s suggestions for shifting her time goal.
“I’m adjusting my marathon pace to aim for a 2:55 so that 3:00 will be my cushion,” she says. “I don’t know what else to do. I know this is all between the ears.”
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