As a general statement, I would not consider myself an athlete by any means, let alone a distance runner. I have always been active in sports throughout my childhood and high school years, but lacked the natural talent and competitiveness to be recognized on more than the "average" level. So when a friend first suggested this past summer to train to run a marathon, I without a doubt assumed she was kidding. However, this friend was also a psychology major during her undergraduate years, and pointed out that I should be familiar with the significance of the mental component involved in the training. Just like any other physically difficult task, running a marathon is next to impossible without training your mind along with your body. Reluctantly seeing her point, I further researched the proposal of running the marathon, and before I knew it embarked on a 16-week marathon-training program. Coincidentally, these few months prior to my senior year meant that I also needed to be preparing for the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). In retrospect, the two very different experiences share very similar preparation patterns.
Essentially, there are six aspects of training the mind critical for my preparation for the GRE and marathon: not procrastinating, training your mind and body, using other sources, framing an internal locus of control, using the techniques of mental imagery, and making time to relax.
Common Themes of Marathon and GRE Training:
1> You Can't Procrastinate! If you are like me, sometimes you might develop the not-so-great habit of delaying studying for an exam or writing a paper until the day before it is due. This tactic might work sometimes in these scenarios, but there is no way you can wait until the week before, let alone the day before, to prepare for a marathon or the GRE. The key to preparing successfully for both tasks is to follow a schedule. During the 16 weeks prior to Marathon Day, I completed two short runs, one moderate run, and one long run per week, increasing distance in correlation with duration. For example, during the first week of training, the short runs were three miles, the moderate run four miles, and the long run five miles. By the eleventh week, the short runs were five miles each, the moderate run eight miles, and the long run sixteen miles. At the same time, I set up a schedule to study for the GRE: each week I spent two days reviewing verbal and math skills, one day reviewing writing sections, and one day taking an actual practice section provided by the GRE PowerPrep Program. As a result of scheduling and gradually increasing the amount of training, I only jumped a series of small hurdles, and found myself able to do more than I ever thought I could. During my first week of training, I had no idea how I would run sixteen miles during the eleventh week; but by gradually building to that distance, I was ready to complete the run at the given time.
2> Training of Muscles: Legs and Brain. Just as I found it important to stick to a schedule, I learned the importance of strengthening and taking care of the muscles used for each task. In training for the marathon, I naturally strengthened my leg muscles as I added on mileage to each week's run. In addition, I had to make sure I stretched before and after each of my runs, and by the eighth week, I began resistance training by lifting weights. Both measures were used to prevent over training my muscles, which would cause an injury (something that often happens with first-time marathon runners) by making my muscles stronger and more limber. Coincidentally, just as I trained my legs, I had to train my mind to prepare for each run through different mental techniques, especially the long runs when I would grow tired. An example of one of these mental techniques includes repeating to myself the following mantra: "I am a marathoner. I love to run. I never get tired. I always feel strong when I run. I feel amazing when I finish." Similarly, I had to strengthen my brain for enduring practice sections of the GRE; I used the same mental techniques to get through the more tedious sections of the GRE that would cause my mind to wander. An adapted version of the previous mantra includes: "I am a graduate student. My mind is strong. I never get tired of math. I feel great when I finish a section." Whenever a negative thought would enter my mind, I counteracted it with positive thinking.
3> Use of Other Sources. I honestly feel that I would not have successfully completed the Chicago Marathon if I had not had as many sources of information available to me. The Non-Runner's Marathon Trainer, by David A. Whitsett, Forrest A. Dolenger, and Tanjala Mabon Kole (1998), became my running bible. Not only did it provide the schedule for the 16 weeks prior to Marathon Day, but it taught me the essential mental and physical components of training for the marathon, including comments from past first-time marathoners. In addition to this amazing source, I had the advice and listening ears of three close friends who also happened to be past marathoners--their guidance was truly valuable. Not only did their expertise apply to anyone who would run a marathon, but because they were my friends they understood my personal fears and apprehension, tailoring their advice accordingly.
Similarly, I do not feel I would have been nearly as well prepared for the GRE if I had only studied vocabulary words and reviewed high school math skills. Instead, I used a wide variety of sources, including listening carefully to advice from professors and recent college graduates about what methods were most effective for preparation, as well as what to expect of the exam. In addition to advising me not to wait until right before the exam to study, they suggested using a variety of sources, such as a review book, classes, and exploring the Educational Testing Services (ETS) website. I downloaded the free interactive GREÂ®PowerPrepTM (ETS, 2003; www.gre.org/pracmats.html) program from the ETS website, reviewing specific sections of the GRE with a friend on a biweekly basis. I also decided to take a 16-hour intensive weekend preparation course offered by PowerScoreÂ® (2003; www.powerscore.com). The weekend course appealed to me since I feel that I learn best in a classroom-style atmosphere. The course not only aided in teaching forgotten verbal and math skills (such as geometry), but also taught techniques to become a better test-taker, specific to the new computer-style format. For example, in the past I have been taught to skip the more difficult questions and go back to them with remaining time at the end of a section. However, it is not possible to go back to previous questions when taking the computer version of the GRE. The course and the PowerPrep program helped me to practice getting used to this new approach. All of these sources combined added to the effort of gradually strengthening my brain in preparing to take the GRE.
Specific Techniques of Marathon and GRE Training:
1> Internal Locus Of Control. Whitsett et al. (1998, p.21) stated, "We humans have the unique capacity to make our own reality." Locus of control is a compelling tool that I have learned to apply to all aspects of life. As the weeks progressed and my runs grew longer, developing an internal locus of control (ILOC) became not just helpful, but necessary. Traditionally, "locus of control" is defined as "generalized expectancies people hold about whether or not their own behavior can bring about the outcomes they seek" (Westen, 1996, p.236). In application to training for the marathon, possessing an ILOC means believing you are in control of the large and small events in your life, such as running a marathon, and running in the rain or on days you are tired in preparation for the marathon. Therefore, you use your belief to exercise that control. In contrast, an external locus of control refers to feeling as though your actions do not or barely influence how events take shape, thereby inhibiting your efforts to influence events in your life (Whitsett et al., 1998).
Adopting a positive perspective involves accepting responsibility for the power you have to make your own choices, therefore creating your reality and, most importantly, trusting yourself. Although you may not be able to control everything that happens in your life, you can control how you react to situations through how you exercise an ILOC. While training for the marathon, I encoun-tered something I used to hate: running up hills. Cognitive reframing, or changing how I thought about the task of running up hills in the past, aided my marathon training by changing my perspective; instead of dreading them, I began to appreciate the challenge (Whitsett et al. 1998).
In the same way, since math is my academic weakness, I avoided studying the quantitative portion of the GRE in the past in order to avoid feeling badly about myself when struggling. After embracing an ILOC and how I would perceive the situation, I began to tackle the different math sections with a new, positive frame of mind. For example, I would greet a probability problem by thinking, "Hey probability, you are usually a challenge for me, but thanks for the great feeling when I do get the answer right." My thought process sounds goofy, but it led to enjoying success when I did begin to understand the math.
2> Mental Imagery. Another technique valuable in both types of training includes visualizing succeeding in the situation. When first reading about mental imagery, I have to admit I was hesitant - could the mind really affect the body to that extent? To my surprise, I found that the answer is yes; by filling my head with images of myself running effortlessly and endlessly on my long training runs, I truly enjoyed those 18+ miles, and felt just as strong and powerful as I had imagined in my mind! Since I was not used to the concept, I really had to work at concentrating on details that triggered my senses. I imagined where I was running, what I saw, what the weather was like, how the air smelled, and so on. The tactic became most useful when self-defeating, negative thoughts entered my mind coinciding with fatigue, such as "What was I thinking, I'm not an athlete--I am NEVER going to finish!"
Although the GRE does not involve physical weariness, your mind definitely does become exhausted, providing the opportunity to think negatively. After getting through about two hours of the GRE, I began to lose focus, and my mind would easily drift elsewhere as I tried to read a passage in one of the verbal sections. Instead of getting angry and panicking over wasted time, I took a deep breath, closed my eyes for ten seconds, and visualized myself reading and comprehending everything in front of me. When I opened my eyes, I felt refreshed and ready to push forward. Using mental imagery by picturing myself focused and succeeding worked just as effectively for me in both situations.
3> Relaxation. In the fast-paced world of a college student, the technique of relaxing can prove to be more difficult than expected! However, relaxing my mind along with my muscles was a crucial step in preparing for the marathon as well as the GRE. In the words of Whitsett et al. (1998, p.177), "the ability to relax at will produces feelings of reduced anxiety and tension, as well as increased self-confidence and a sense of overall well-being." By mentally taking myself to a tranquil beach in Hawaii or on a serene walk through the woods, I learned how to relax in times of stress--above all, the nights before the marathon and the GRE when I became the most restless. In addition, this relaxation technique was invaluable when I became tired during the marathon and exam. Similar to visualizing myself succeeding on the GRE, another tactic I used when struggling through a section was to take myself to a mental vacation spot for ten seconds.
All of the above themes and techniques helped to carry me through these challenging times of each mind and body situation.
Furthermore, the support from family and friends willed me to overcome the most difficult challenge of the marathon, well-known as hitting "the wall"; in other words, reaching a point when your body feels like its shutting down. Physically, somewhere between mile 20 and 24 (varying per individual based on physical factors), your body runs out of carbohydrates to make adenosine triphosphate (ATP) which provides energy to run, and has to switch to burning fat for energy - this results in only being capable of running at half your prior speed. When this phenomenon happened to me, I was lucky enough to have my parents and many close friends at the sidelines to cheer me on; I even had the privilege of three of them jumping in and running part of the marathon with me, encouraging me when I needed their words the most. My personal experience of hitting the wall included not being able to feel my legs at mile 22, followed by not being able to talk or turn my head to the side; I became a machine on autopilot, repeating the same mantra over and over to get myself to the finish line: "I am a marathoner."
In a comparable way, support from family and friends got me through the toughest part of taking the GRE: waiting for the results. In times of anxiety, I was reassured that I had prepared well and therefore performed as best as possible--and that staring at the mailbox would not make the results come sooner. Overall, the most important thing I have learned from training for the Chicago Marathon is that the skills needed to run a marathon can be applied to all aspects of life--including preparing for the GRE. As a result, my hard work and perseverance paid off. Not only did I perform much better than expected on the GRE, but I have been accepted to and will be attending the University of Denver to earn a master's degree in counseling psychology. I know the tactics of encouraging an internal locus of control, using mental imagery, and relaxing in whatever endeavors cross my path in the future in order to grow personally and professionally. The experience of crossing the finish line after 4 hours and 30 minutes of running nonstop with 40,000 people was definitely a peak moment of my life that I will never forget. Maybe you can experience a similar triumph after conquering the GRE.
Educational Testing Services (2003). GRE(R) PowerPrep Software [Computer software]. Retrieved August 11, 2005, from http://www.gre.org/pracmats.html
PowerScore (2003). The Powerscore Weekend GRE Course [Test preparation course]. Retrieved August 11, 2005, from http://www.powerscore.com
Westen, D. (1996). Psychology: Mind, brain, and culture. New York,: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.
Whitsett, D. A., Dolgener, F. A., & Kole, T. M. (1998). The non-runner's marathon trainer. Chicago, IL: Masters Press.