I was always hesitant to be labeled a “marathoner” or a “triathlete,” My rationale is the same rationale I use when setting up training programs for runners, whom I actually prefer to call “athletes” instead. I’ve run marathons, but I’m not a marathoner. I’m not a triathlete; I’m “someone who competes in triathlons.” What’s the difference and what does this have to do with a training program? What does this have to do with the mental approach to training and racing?
Social psychology tells us that labels can have a positive influence on behavioral change, as noted by the terms self-concept, self-identity, self-schemata, etc. If someone is frequently describe by co-workers as “driven,” “passionate,” or “energetic,” then he/she will eventually develop a self-concept of being a productive worker, which is wonderful. If you have a friend trying to get off the couch and start exercising, you can always remind him/her after each spin class that he/she is “turning into a pretty good cyclist.” Labeling your friend as a cyclist over and over will help him/her define him/herself as an active person, which is very important in shaping new behaviors. But it can sometimes be a double-edged sword. The person in the first example might become a work-aholic, the work consumes him/her to the point of stress, or your friend may feel irritable if he/she doesn’t exercise or can’t find any alternatives to cycling.
As it relates to “marathoners,” they sometimes feel that the year wasn't too productive or that they accomplished much unless they are training for the marathon distance, or worse, unless they set a PR in each successive marathon. I see it often, where anything other than a marathon PR is accompanied by not feeling successful and all the subsequent damage control therein. I don’t see this issue in runners training for shorter distances, or those who are yet to run a marathon. The self-identity as a marathoner can dictate everything about the mental approach to training and racing, which indirectly affects mood via the interpretation of progress. For instance, the weekend long run becomes the magic bean of the program and much emotional stock lies within that run each week. A marathoner insists he must run a marathon each year (or season) instead of possibly taking a year off from marathons in order to correct muscular imbalances and build speed at other distances. This is where I, as a coach, enter the picture.
The main service I offer is the mental approach to training and racing. This means that the exact type of workout the athlete does is always secondary to the reason he/she does it in the first place. For instance, the question may be posed, “Coach, what speed workouts would I be doing this winter to prepare for a spring marathon?” My rhetorical question in response, “Does the marathon conflict with any other training or racing goals?” If the athletes’ answers are sensible, then we build the training to prepare for the marathon, and sure, goals are set easily enough. I use this anecdote because I find that when people/runners/athletes label themselves as marathoners they are more likely to lose sight of other short-term process goals.
Marathoners become a breed of runner that can put too much emotional stock into one race, putting all their emotional eggs into one basket. It consumes them and their training. To some people, this behavior actually seems positive because it’s interpreted as being motivated, but what gets lost in the shuffle are the important short-term goals, like rest days, running form, strength training and PT. Therefore, the obstacles that arise are the unwillingness to take rest days, an inability to refrain from signing up for longer races at the wrong time, passing on an off-season that prioritizes ST, and an inability to correct running form because of constant high-mileage training. Comparing a winter training program preceding a spring marathon vs. a spring half-marathon can be like comparing apples to oranges because preparing for the marathon can get in the way of other important goals.
I attempt to shift my clientele, specifically the beginners, away from “running as exercise,” and into feeling like a runner. From there, I want them to feel like an athlete. The latter leaves opens more doors to new/different elements of training and is less likely to trap the individual into a smaller role/identity (entrapment theory). I teach athletes to recognize short-distance racing as important for myriad reasons. Again (cover your ears), this can mean not running a marathon one particular year. Hearing that phrase stings if you’re a marathoner. If you’re an athlete, then you have other goals in which to focus and you’re okay. Professional runners are a different breed whose bodily limits have a higher threshold compared to the runners I coach. Therefore, the training programs I develop, and more importantly, the mental approach to the training, needs to reflect this difference.
In sum, think of yourself as an athlete and the doors of perception will be opened to many more aspects of training and racing. I can often easily identify marathoners from their first email or phone call to me. I know exactly why they feel unsuccessful and I already know (before I even ask) that they haven’t run a 5k in six or seven years. Tweak your self-identity in this small yet meaningful way and your progress might sky rocket, your running form might change (due to lower volume training), and you’ll feel more successful more frequently.
Train hard (at all distances)!