Pre-marathon paranoia and how to solve it

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Is that sniffle the first stage of pneumonia? Is that slight knee niggle a ruptured tendon that’ll keep you out of Sunday’s race? Sounds like an attack of acute maranoia, but RW has the prescription to get you to race day feeling positive, ready and raring to go.

THE MARANOIA: ‘I’M CROCKED!’

The average runner clocks up 400-1,000 miles during a marathon training cycle. That’s an awful lot of pounding on the body and a lot of opportunity for injury to strike. But it’s easy to blow a niggle out of proportion, or even experience phantom pains that convince you your race is over before it’s begun.

Beat it: Plan A is to do nothing. Wait 48 hours to see how the pain develops. Niggles (and phantom injuries) will die down pretty quickly, but if you’re still experiencing a similar level of pain after two days, move to Plan B, which is to see a professional to ease your mind. ‘In the last two or so weeks before a marathon our job becomes as much about reassurance as it is about sports therapy, because we see an increase in the number of clients who are convinced that they’re injured,’ says Dawn Buoy of Body Rehab Studios, physio partners to the Brighton Marathon. ‘It’s not surprising after all that training, but when we analyse the symptoms, we find that far more often than not at this stage there’s nothing to worry about, and the client leaves having had no treatment, but is happy and relieved.’

To try to avoid that trip to the physiotherapist, Buoy suggests keeping a body-map diary. ‘This is a journal that records how you feel physically before, during and after a training run. It helps you to build up knowledge of how your body responds to a run, and will help you to differentiate between a niggle and an injury that needs attention.’

THE MARANOIA: ‘I’VE GOT THE LURGY!’

During marathon season, you may see a spike in the use of hand gels and antibacterial wipes. On the commuter train you’ll see games of musical chairs played out as runners bid to avoid the ‘splutterer’. And germ maranoia can even result in some poor souls refusing to kiss their children or partner. This isn’t entirely delusional thinking. ‘Runners can have an increased risk of respiratory illness,’ says Professor Michael Gleeson, senior lecturer in exercise biochemistry at Loughborough University. ‘Prolonged bouts of exercise of 90 minutes or more cause a decrease in blood sugar levels, and an increase in the stress hormones that suppress the immune system. You are most susceptible for up to three hours after a run.’

Beat it: Gleeson recommends eating a carb-rich meal two to three hours before your long runs. ‘Aim for five to eight grams of carbs per kilogram of body weight,’ he says. ‘This will maximise your glycogen stores to help prevent the drop in blood sugars, which, in turn, will boost the immune system.’ Having a probiotic, a glass of milk or a yoghurt on your return will help, too. The protein will help muscle recovery and the good bacteria will limit the time you’re susceptible to infection post-run. Finally, drink beer. A study of runners conducted by the Technical University of Munich found those who drank up to 1.5 litres of non-alcoholic wheat beer a day were three times less susceptible to infection after a marathon than a placebo group. ‘Non-alcoholic beer is rich in polyphenols,’ says Gleeson. ‘These decrease levels of inflammatory markers found in the blood after a long run.’ And in case you’re thinking of quarantining your sniffly partner, remember that the cold virus rarely enters the body through the mouth, according to research at the University of Wisconsin Medical School, US. In 16 trials where infected volunteers kissed cold-free volunteers for a full minute and a half, only one case of cross infection occurred.

THE MARANOIA: ‘I’M GOING TO SUFFER A FREAK ACCIDENT!’

You know that being crushed by a falling tree/hit by an asteroid/insert irrational fear is not really a risk. And yet you can’t stop worrying. Once again, it’s all related to the time you’ve invested in the process so far, says Gareth Nicholls, a sports performance hypnotist at The Therapy Lounge. ‘This is what I call your “Monkey Mind” messing with you,’ he says. ‘You give your brain free rein and so you start getting carried away with “What if?” scenarios.’

Beat it: ‘As soon as your mind begins to race away with worries, visualise a stop sign to interrupt your thoughts,’ says Nicholls. ‘Try a simple breathing exercise: inhaling for a count of seven, exhaling for 11, each time focusing on what you want to happen, rather than things that you want to prevent.’ Nicholls also points out that while running is normally a great stress reliever, marathon training can often have the reverse effect, when all you do is run, eat, sleep and think about running. ‘It can become all consuming, so you lose your perspective and ability even to talk about anything else,’ he says. ‘It’s crucial that you maintain a life outside of training and at least once a week do something that is completely unrelated to running.’

THE MARANOIA: ‘I’M NOT GOING TO FINISH/HIT MY TARGET’

Setting a time goal for a race can be a fantastic motivator, but it also adds pressure, because now you have two targets instead of one, says Yehuda Shinar, motivation coach and author of Think Like a Winner (£12.99, Vermillion). ‘Firstly you have to get round the course,’ he says. ‘Secondly, you have to get round it in a particular time. You’ve spent so long training for this that the two are inextricably linked. ‘Combine that with the pressure of expectation that may have built up from friends, family or running for a charity, and it’s not surprising that this can feel overwhelming to runners,’ says Shinar.

Beat it: Shinar, who worked with the England rugby team to help them to World Cup victory in 2003, says that a pessimistic attitude about the big day arises from insufficient analysis of the training you’ve done and fear of the unknown. ‘Negative thinking is natural,’ he says. ‘It’s like hitting the wall in a marathon. Everyone has some symptoms, but it’s how you deal with the thoughts that matters. So it is with negative thinking. The only difference mentally between your average runner and those with winning behaviour is how you nullify the fear so it doesn’t preoccupy you.’ So how do you think like a winner? By adopting Shinar’s T-CUP methodology. It stands for Thinking Correctly Under Pressure and it means analysing your training as you go and having a plan for every contingency. ‘This enables you to focus on the logic of where you are, rather than going on emotion,’ he says. ‘It’s not enough to follow the training plan and hope for the best. The more you’ve thought about everything in advance, the more you can sail through anything that happens. Shinar suggests splitting your analysis into three parts:

● Firstly, keep a diary of everything that happens to you in training: how each of your runs felt, what was hard, what was easy, how your mood affected your session, how you reacted when something bad happened, what you would have done differently with hindsight, and so on.

● Secondly, write down a goal plan for race day based on your perfect race. Break the run down into sections and outline how you want to tackle each. Cover issues such as what you’re going to eat, how you want to feel, when you’ll take on fluid, what you’ll do if race setbacks occur and how you would like to react to each one.

● Finally, set three target time goals to take the pressure off yourself: a time that you should be able to get, a time that you could get (such as a past PB), and your dream goal.