Head strong

Steeling the mind, as well as body, helps marathoners deal with training obstacles

By Elizabeth Cooney
Globe Correspondent / February 22, 2010

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Catherine Ehrhardt put her big dream on a little Post-it: “You are doing this because it’s something you never thought you would do.’’

A therapist at Wentworth Institute of Technology’s counseling center, Ehrhardt guides students toward their goals every day. So it was natural for her to spell out her motivation to run the Boston Marathon and raise money for the Melanoma Foundation, just in case she ever found herself in need of inspiration to keep going.

That day came earlier this month when a chest cold knocked her out of her weekly long run for the first time. She lost her voice the day before, but she still tried to get out there that weekend morning to run the 13 miles with a friend. When she couldn’t catch her breath, she surrendered and stopped. But later that day she walked along Boylston Street, imagining herself at the end of 26.2 miles. “I’m having to practice what I preach. I tell my students all the time, visualize yourself at that moment. So here I was walking down the street, telling myself, I will be crossing this line’’ in eight weeks, she said.

Steeling both the mind and body are twin challenges runners face in February. Seasoned runners, coaches, and sports medicine specialists say it comes down to two rules: Know your body and know why you’re running.

“No matter how many well-laid plans you have, how you train or plan or take care of your body with nutri tion, stretching, and strengthening, you are putting a lot of wear and tear on your body,’’ said Michael Pieroni, head coach of the Boston Athletic Association. “You’re doing something hard. It shouldn’t feel easy.’’

Pieroni troubleshoots with the runners he coaches, going from the simple to more serious reasons for feeling sub-par. If an everyday run that used to take 50 minutes is taking longer, he raises the possibility that an illness might be brewing. When runners tell Pieroni it hurts when they run, or their muscles are unusually sore the next day, he asks them to check their footwear. After running shoes hit the 500-mile mark, no matter how expensive or high-tech, they break down under the pounding and should be replaced, whether they look worn or not.

Hydration is just as important in winter as when it’s hot and humid, so runners should stay on top of their fluid intake. The same goes for food, not just to complete the run but to recover from it. Pieroni suggests eating a banana or peanut butter and jelly sandwich within a half-hour after a long training run to get nutrients back into the body, even before hunger surfaces.

More specific pain that can be pinpointed to one joint or even to an entire leg should send runners to a sports medicine professional for evaluation. “Find a person who’s not going to shut you down unless it’s necessary,’’ he says. Pieroni also suggests a therapeutic massage, which can be a balm for both mind and body at this stage of training.

“It’s not all downhill with the wind at your back, especially in New England. You’re going to question your sanity, or your significant other will, if it’s 7 a.m. on Sunday and it’s 20 degrees out, on a good day,’’ Pieroni said. “What you find is, once you do get through that 20-mile run in 20 degrees, you do have a sense of accomplishment.’’

Jennifer Green, a physical therapist at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital who is coaching a Spaulding marathon team, recommends cross- and strength training to change the stressors on the body while keeping up aerobic activity. “You want to be able to build and maintain strong abdominal muscles, lower back muscles, and pelvic and hip muscles,’’ she said. “Maintaining a strong core helps you run better.’’

Another important tactic is to celebrate smaller accomplishments - even just making it through an everyday workout, according to sports psychologist Jeff Brown of McLean Hospital and Harvard Medical School. With Mark Fenske, he is the author of “The Winner’s Brain,’’ due in April. “You really need to enjoy the experience of training,’’ he said. “Set performance goals along the way and not just on Patriots Day.’’

Experienced runners know how to deal with days when they feel bad, taking them in stride as an opportunity to train mentally for adversity. “You don’t know what the 19th will hold. You have to be prepared,’’ Brown said. “The brain is what it’s all about.’’

He also recommends setting objective goals, such as accomplishing certain training distances. He encourages marathoners to walk up Heartbreak Hill to get to know what it looks like, how high it is, what the pavement feels like. The last of four Newton Hills beginning at the 16-mile mark isn’t particularly high, but it comes when runners might not have much left in the tank.

Brown speaks about maintaining mental focus at sessions offered to runners just before Boston and other marathons. But runners need to be clear on motivation long before race day, he said. “Know why you are running. Whether you’re training or whether you’re on Heartbreak Hill, you can anchor yourself to this one goal,’’ he said.

Angela Morello knows why she’s running: to raise funds for Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. But she also has a more personal reason. She is motivated by her past problems with an eating disorder. “I pushed my body in negative ways, so how cool is it to push my body this way?’’ she said. “I’ve been through worse.’’

Her parents were a little worried about their 23-year-old daughter’s marathon plan, afraid she’d fall back into old habits of obsessing about calories and exercising to such an extreme that she could land in a hospital again. But she said her training has made her appreciate food. “If I don’t nourish myself the way I’m supposed to, there is no way that I can do my runs, never mind long runs,’’ she said. “I can’t waste any time with going back to my eating disorder, I have too much going on. I am in a band, I work full time, I’m taking my prerequisites for nursing school, and I’m raising money and training for the marathon.’’

Morello, who works at the psychiatric hospital Arbour-HRI in Brookline, has been running loops along the Charles River to get her miles up, but she’s moving on to the marathon course itself, encouraged by a friend who is a veteran of Boston. Training with a friend or a running club both get high marks from running specialists. Otherwise it can get lonely out there.

Dr. Arthur Siegel of McLean Hospital has some advice for runners with two months to go until the April 19 starting gun, based on what he has seen in the marathon medical tent and what he learned while training himself for multiple marathons: “If you feel good, don’t get overconfident, as it won’t last. If it feels bad, just hang in there because it will soon be over.’’

Help for the weary

How you can keep on track toward a long-term, physically demanding goal such as running a marathon when you’re deep into training and find yourself aching - body and soul. A few things to think about:

? Set intermediate goals along the way and celebrate meeting them.

? Visualize success: crossing the finish line at the end of 26.2 miles.

? Run with a friend or a group.

? Check your nutrition: As long runs get longer, pack food to eat along the way, and don’t forget to eat a nutritious snack half an hour after a training run.

? Check your hydration: Bring along water or sports drinks.

? Treat yourself to a massage between workouts to care for your muscles (and to lift your spirits).

? Do total-body strengthening exercises to keep your core strong.

? Replace your footwear once you clock 500 miles. Even if the shoes don’t look worn, they are.

? Get enough sleep.

? If something hurts, get help from a sports medicine specialist who knows about running.

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