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Count Your Blessings

Dr Matt Long explores some useful mental strategies that you could use to help you cope with endurance events like the marathon.

On the morning of the race, you have applied Vaseline to every moving body part and even don a heart rate monitor and the latest GPS technology to guide you through the 26.2 miles ahead. However, have you worked out your mental strategy to ensure you arrive at the finish in decent shape? Accepting that your brain and thought processes have control of your body is the key to taking ownership of your athletic performance - Padgett and Hill (1989)[2].

Cognitive association

According to sports psychologist Lee Crust (n.d.)[5], the cognitive association typically involves focusing on internal bodily sensations during a performance, such as heart rate, breathing rate, muscular sensations, and sweating. This mode of association may be preferred by the majority of both club and international athletes during the competition as a way of monitoring fatigue to attempt to ensure optimal performance. There is, however, an alternative way of approaching your Marathon.

Cognitive dissociation

Morris (n.d.)[4] tells us that according to the urban myth of the Tibetan monks by fixating on a distant mountain peak and repeating a mantra stride-after-stride, the monks were able to dissociate their conscious thought processes from the demands placed on the body and cover 300 miles in 30 hours which averages at an unbelievable six minutes per mile. No doubt only a legend, but the principle for the benefit of dissociation is well made. The following tabular presentation documents some extrinsic and intrinsic modes of distraction that facilitates cognitive dissociation, and which may help you navigate the course.

Cognitive dissociation stimuli and distractors

Locus of stimuli Mode of distraction
External Observational
External and internal Auditory
Internal Cognitive
Internal Fantastical
  • Observational: Visual games dependent on environmental cues such as a building
  • Auditory: Music for mental arousal. This can also be the rehearsing of a song in your head without a sound
  • Cognitive: Mental games typically involving numerical or alphabetical counting
  • Fantastical: Imagine yourself running along part of the route leading the marathon

An advocate of both association and dissociation

A key advocate of both associative and dissociative techniques is world marathon record holder Paula Radcliffe who is reputed to use the auditory technique of listening to inspirational songs, such as Kanye West's 'Stronger' (O'Connell, 2009)[1]. Also, it is known that Radcliffe favours the cognitive strategy of the counting game articulated above.

"When I count to 100 three times, it's a mile. It helps me focus on the moment and not think about how many miles I have to go. I concentrate on breathing and striding, and I go within myself." Paula Radcliffe

Although a clear advocate of two distinctive dissociative strategies, the second half of Radcliffe's statement above in terms of breathing and striding is a clear allusion to the benefits of associative strategies as well because they involve a mental focus on technical aspects of running. This leaves us to reflect that it is not an either-or when one evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of both associative and dissociative mental strategies. Sports Psychologist, Lee Crust, himself advocates a triangulation of the two at various 'cyclical phases' during the marathon, and this is endorsed empirically by Silva and Appelbaum's (1989)[3] multivariate analysis of 32 US Olympic trial marathoners.

"Most successful elite marathon runners have been shown to combine associative and dissociative strategies when planning their thoughts." Lee Crust, Sports Psychologist

Potential Hazard

Running in races where there is a large field of runners the use of dissociative cognitive strategies could pose a danger in terms of a 'switching-off' which could increase the likelihood of accident or injury, sustained for example by running into a fellow athlete who stops to take fluid on board at a water station or tripping up on a hazard such as a discarded water bottle.

Article Reference

The information on this page is adapted from Long (2012)[6] with the kind permission of the author and Athletics Weekly.


  1. O'CONELL, S. (2009) London marathon 2009: what makes the perfect marathon runner. Daily Telegraph, 21 April
  2. PADGETT, V. and HILL, A. (1989) Maximising Athletic Performance in Endurance Events: A Comparison of Cognitive Strategies. Journal of Applied Social Psychology. 19 (4), p. 331-340
  3. SILVA, J. and APPELBAUM, M. (1989) Association-dissociation patterns of United States Olympic Marathon Trial contestants. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 13 (2), p. 185-192
  4. MORRIS, R. (n.d.) Zone Out to Dial in – Using Disassociation to Improve Your Running Performance [WWW] Available from: [Accessed: 28/05/2012]
  5. CRUST, L. (n.d.) Sports Psychology: mental preparation to improve running performance. Peak Performance
  6. LONG, M. Dr (2012) Count your blessings, Athletics Weekly, 21st April, p. 58-59

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • LONG, M. Dr (2012) Count your blessings [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Dr Matt Long works for British Athletics in coach education having delivered work at the national high-performance centre at Loughborough University.