A cognitive behavioral intervention can help marathon runners manage their stress and negative thinking surrounding an upcoming race, according to a study published in Frontiers in Psychology. The intervention involved a 7-week psychological skills training that taught associative attentional techniques, strategies for disrupting negative thoughts, and relaxation techniques.
A marathon is a long-distance race that covers an impressive 26.2 miles. Far from being reserved for elite athletes, marathons are frequently competed in by amateurs of all skill levels. In addition to being physically demanding, marathon running involves a strong mental component which has attracted the attention of sports psychologists.
But study authors Jose C. Jaenes and his team say that amateur marathoners often overlook the importance of psychological preparation. The researchers wanted to test whether this group of athletes would benefit from a type of cognitive behavioral therapy that has been widely endorsed by the sport psychology field — a therapy called psychological skills training (PST). The training teaches athletes skills to refocus their attention, relax under pressure, and channel their self-confidence.
Jaenes and his colleagues recruited a small sample of 14 marathon runners between the ages of 21 and 40 who were signed up for the same upcoming marathon. The runners were non-professional, although they had an average of 16 years of running experience and all of them had previously completed at least one marathon. In the seven weeks leading up to the marathon, the runners partook in weekly psychological skills training sessions that were between 60 and 90 minutes long and supervised by a sports psychologist.
During the training, the runners were taught cognitive behavioral techniques that included reframing negative thoughts with positive self-talk, concentrating on breathing and sensations within the body, and directing attention away from the body to thoughts of family and friends. The training also included relaxation techniques that involved tightening and relaxing particular muscle groups.
The runners completed an 8-item mental scale at the start of the intervention and again at the end of the intervention (two days before the marathon). The scale assessed negative thoughts about the upcoming race, including worry about not reaching one’s goals, worry about performing poorly, and concern about folding under pressure.
When the researchers compared the runners’ answers from before and after the psychological skills training, they found that the participants showed significant decreases in negative thoughts about the race. Notably, this was after controlling for age, running experience, and number of marathons completed.
While the findings were robust, the authors note that their study lacked a control group, which limited their findings. They say this limitation could be improved upon in future studies by including a wait-list control group assigned to receive the PST at the end of the study.
Jaenes and colleagues note that while sports psychologists endorse various types of psychological interventions for athletes, the effectiveness of these interventions is often unclear. Their study offers evidence that a simple, easy to implement CBT based on psychological skills training can be effective in reducing negative thinking and self-doubt among marathon runners.
The study, “The Effectiveness of the Psychological Intervention in Amateur Male Marathon Runners”, was authored by Jose C. Jaenes, Dominika Wilczyńska, David Alarcón, Rafael Peñaloza, Arturo Casado, and Manuel Trujillo.