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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.

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.

Gold Coast Marathon starting line

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)

My name is Christian Swan I'm a senior lecturer in psychology at Southern Cross University and my research is on the psychology of sport, exercise and physical activity. So if you're currently preparing for the Gold Coast Marathon psychology is obviously a very important part of your preparation and your training. One of the things that everyone will probably have coming into the Gold Coast marathon is a goal that they are thinking about trying to achieve.

The research will tell us that certain types of goal are going to be more useful in certain situations than in others so if you're experienced in marathons if you have run them before if you know what you're doing then the typical SMART goal - specific achievable measurable realistic time-bound - those types of goals can be great, it can be really helpful for performance and can help you get more out of yourself on the day.

If this is your first time though a completely different type of goal might be more useful for you and might help you have an enjoyable and much less stressful experience.

Research is telling us that more open-ended goals can actually be much more useful instead of setting really specific measurable time bound goals. Try setting something instead just like to see how well you can do on the day, don't attach a number to it, don't attach at a certain time go out see what you can do based on the training you've done and where you're at on the day.

See how you go and then come back and try and do better next time.

So in the days leading up to a big race like the Gold Coast marathon a lot of the top athletes will have a routine that they have prepared and that they will go through in the days before, in the morning of the race to help them feel like they're in control and that they know that everything is in place for when the the race actually starts.

So that will include everything from you know the time that they're waking up, the time that they're having breakfast, they've got all of their plans set out in terms of where they need to be at certain points in time.

So from a psychological perspective having outines like that that can really help athletes feel in control, know what they're doing, know that everything's in place and not feel overwhelmed by the occasion that is about to happen.

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.


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