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Half the battle of any physical activity is mental. When it comes to an endurance sport like marathon running, mental preparation can be as important as physical training. Part of this mental preparation for many runners will involve setting goals.

Gold Coast Marathon starting line

Having a specific time target, like improving a personal best, is a common type of goal for experienced marathon runners but this could be counterproductive for novice runners, says Southern Cross University Senior Lecturer in Psychology Dr Christian Swann. Based at Southern Cross University’s Coffs Harbour campus, Dr Swann is also an Accredited Exercise Scientist and focuses his research around the psychology of sport and exercise. He has extensively researched elite athletes and exercisers, and how we experience the ‘flow’ state (commonly known as being ‘in the zone’) in these activities.

The term ‘flow’ was coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to describe highly enjoyable experiences when it feels like everything clicks into place, and we perform at the best of our ability. This concept can be applied to many different human activities, including marathon running. Setting goals and mental preparation all contribute to the flow state.

“The research tells us that for novice runners, setting an open-ended goal can lead to less pressure and actually result in better outcomes for the athlete,” he said.

An example of an open-ended goal might be to “see how you well you can do”, based on your physical preparation, without putting a time constraint on your performance. This also opens the way to improving on your time in your next race. “This open-ended goal for first-timers can mean a lot less stress and pressure, so the experience is more enjoyable at the time and you are more motivated to come back and try again,” said Dr Swann.


Dr Christian Swann talks about setting goals for the Gold Coast Marathon. (2:05)

Routines are also really important in the lead-in to the event. “Top athletes will use routines as part of their preparation. This can be the time they wake up, the time they have breakfast, the sequence of their warm-up and so on. From a psychological perspective routine can help athletes feel in control and not get overwhelmed by a major event,” said Dr Swann.

Southern Cross University was voted the number one university in Australia for teaching quality and student support in psychology by the 2019 Good Universities Guide.

The combination of psychology and sport is a growing professional specialisation. Southern Cross University offers a Bachelor of Sport and Exercise, a Bachelor of Psychological Science, and an Honours degree in psychology. In addition, the University has recently introduced a combined Bachelor of Exercise Science and Psychological Science degree at the Coffs Harbour campus for those interested in learning about, and combining, both disciplines.