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The road to 26.2

The mental and physical science of running a marathon

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The road to 26.2

Photos by Caean Couto

Running is part of human nature. Speed and endurance were crucial for our ancestors’ survival, whether for hunting or spreading important information over long distances. The development of our bipedal movement and enhanced physical capability evolutionarily coincides with brain expansion, which likely allowed us to explore our environments, expand our territory, and develop technology and culture.

Today long-distance running in our species is mostly recreational. Our biological response to running hasn’t changed much since we were chasing our dinner 2 million years ago, but the reasons we run are now tied more to psychology and sociology than biology.

A marathon is 26.2 miles, a distance informed by a Greek legend and later incorporated into the first Olympic games in 1896. There are a lot of reasons to run a marathon. Some people want a concrete goal motivating them to exercise; others want the sense of accomplishment from finishing the race. Whatever the motivation, every runner faces obstacles when training for this daunting task. The psychological and biological reality of achieving this goal is often painful and requires significant lifestyle changes.

So, how do they do it? 


Christine Betts lifelong goal is to complete an Ironman Triathlon. Marathon training not only helps her excel at the event, but helps build the mental fortitude required.

Part I: The psychology

According to local sports psychologist and marathon runner Kaitlyn Carey, goal setting is the key to finishing a marathon. These goals should be realistic but time-sensitive. For example, this can icnlude running a few times a week and gradually increasing mileage while building in rest days. The ideal mindset includes a healthy level of flexibility. A rigid determination makes it easy to get discouraged by small setbacks and sets a runner up for failure.

Another important strategy for achieving this kind of goal is visualization. As a runner gears up for race day, they can picture the sensations in the moments leading up to the race. Imagine getting out of bed, smelling coffee, and eating breakfast. Picture turning the key in the ignition and driving to the race and hearing the chatter of fellow runners and supporters as they walk to the starting line. And finally imagine their mental and physical state with each passing mile.

“The runner is able to imagine that they have more control over the outcome of their performance because they can picture how they will confront obstacles,” Carey said.

This technique can reduce stress and enhance physical practice by building neural pathways in the brain, like building muscle memory.

Visualization is a technique similar to cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) practices, which can reduce intrusive feelings of self-doubt. Training for a marathon involves a lot of time spent running alone, as well as thought-training. When negative thoughts about performance comes up, Caitlyn suggests that runners use CBT to overcome them. 

When thoughts like like “I’m so slow” or “I’ll never finish” come up, Carey suggests visualizing a stop sign or writing the thought and crossing it out. Then come up with a simple replacement thought that is more positive, like “My time doesn’t matter, I know I can finish.” 

Using a ‘fake it till you make it’ strategy improves self-perception and enhances performance, like the superhero pose technique on the popular medical dramedy “Grey’s Anatomy,” where Dr. Shepherd has her surgical team stand in a superhero pose before surgery.

CBT techniques go hand-in-hand with practices of mindfulness and self-compassion. The physical training for a marathon is often just as tough on your mind as it is on your body. Practicing a non-judgemental awareness of emotions that emerge during training can build resilience that can help runners keep moving forward when all they may want to do is stop.



Olga Andreeva (left) and Christine Betts both competed in the Seattle Marathon last November. The pair saw each other through the training process.

Part II: The biology

Unless you’re Forrest Gump, you probably don’t remember the first time you ran. Running comes naturally with walking, without any real voluntary thought involved on the mechanics. While a natural process, running is not possible without a balancing act of complex interactions within the body.

In order to run, we need to contract and relax different leg muscles such as the quadricep at the front of the thigh, which bends the hip and straightens the knee as we move a leg forward, and the hamstring at the back of the thigh, which contracts and begins to bend the knee.

Muscle contraction requires the delivery of oxygen via the bloodstream. Blood that has been oxygenated from a fresh breath of air in the lungs travels from the heart through the arteries and exchanges oxygen for carbon dioxide within our muscle tissue. The muscles use this oxygen in the production of ATP, the energy carrier enabling biological reactions like muscle contraction. 

The amount of blood traveling through the body is the product of heart rate and the volume of blood pumped with every beat. Each of these is the result of variables like hormone circulation, fitness level, and the relative resistance of our blood vessels.

As running speed increases, so does demand for oxygen. The body compensates by taking in more air per breath and increasing heart rate to diffuse this oxygen all over the body. 

A runner’s speed depends on the length of their leg and of their stride. Leg length can’t be changed but there is a science to maximizing stride rate. According to “The Science of Running” by performance coach Steve Magness, propulsion is mainly determined by hip extension. The hip is like a piston, transferring force while in a cycle of extension and recovery. A stronger hip extension results in increased speed. 

Running long distances opens the door to even more biological processes, particularly in our nervous system. In a 2016 paper, UW professor Jay Schulkin explored the neurobiology of long-distance running.

“Long-distance running partially involves combating pain and discomfort, common themes in many sports,” Schulkin wrote. “Adversity is inherent in sport. To struggle is to succeed, and to cope with struggling, the human body has evolved to release hormones associated with euphoric states so that when one is faced with a particularly trying physical feat, the cephalic space is permeated with chemicals that induce a sense of calmness, and what seemed daunting ceases to be much of a bother at all.” 

Schulkin is referring to the famous “runner’s high.” One source of the high comes from the central nervous system, where endorphins bind to opiate receptors. This results in an increase in dopamine, a neurotransmitter that impacts brain systems which participate in motor control and reward. Dopamine is also a precursor to norepinephrine and epinephrine, more commonly known as adrenaline, which are involved in the body’s response to stress.

Running not only benefits the brain in the moment, but also has long-lasting benefits too. Studies in mammals have demonstrated a positive relationship between running and brain development in the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in memory. 


Nike Running App

Olga Andreeva kept track of all her training runs using the Nike running app, infusing a little humor to deal with the grueling workout schedule.

 Part III: The marathon

Knowing all the complex biological processes that go into running 26.2 long miles makes it seem impossible to finish a marathon, but last year, 511,383 people in the United States and Canada have finished marathons. Two of them were Christine Betts and Olga Andreeva, best friends and UW students in the computer science department who ran the Seattle Marathon last November.

Betts’ lifelong goal is to finish an Ironman Triathlon. Finishing the marathon helped Betts check off training for another component of that race, and completing it with a friend made the experience all the more meaningful.

“Running the race together was huge, I don’t think I would have run nearly as far as I did,” Betts said.

Andreeva joined her because she likes helping her friend, and she wanted to see if they really could run that far.

“The emotional support was there, and I felt it the entire time,” Andreeva said. “At certain points we were both in a lot of pain, but thought ‘My best friend is here so we can keep going.’”

The pair trained the spring and summer before the race. Andreeva completed two or three runs every week and gradually increased her mileage over the summer. Her diet while training included a lot of fruits and vegetables and complex carbohydrates to reduce her sugar intake. Betts followed a vegan diet during the summer. She ate a good deal of leafy greens and oatmeal, and tried to limit her processed/cane sugar intake to under 20 grams per day. 

The two had each other to lean on while training, but another important motivator was external social support.

“We wanted to see it through for the people who thought we could do it,” Betts said. “One of the most meaningful things was having people there for us at the end.”

While completing a marathon was a new challenge, running was already a part of their lives. Both women ran cross country in high school and have incorporated running as a tool for mental and physical health. Andreeva especially likes to run when she’s going through an emotional hurdle.

“It’s a bit of a release; if you’re having a bad day you can put on your running shoes and some jams and just go,” Andreeva said.

In endurance sports like long-distance running, the mental game can be even more important than the physical game. For Betts, running is about the connection between mind and body and an awareness of how external factors like diet and exercise make her feel.

Running also serves as a reminder to be grateful for the body we have, especially when pushing our limits. Exercise can reinforce positive body image and self-love by enhancing a respectful relationship with the body, which is especially important for athletes.

“You have such a strong relationship to the body as an athlete because it is your tool,” Carey said. “Your body does so much for you, and you need to love it back in return.”

Running is certainly not a catch-all cure for mental health issues like anxiety and depression, but for Betts, it is a way to balance her day, especially if that day was tough in other areas.

“Maybe I couldn’t get a 4.0 in this class, but I have other areas of my life in which I am able to do things,” Betts said. ”Knowing we were able to push through [the marathon] is really meaningful. Running allows me to frame my body and my health as something that doesn’t require the approval of others, and I am able to do the things that make me happy.”

Running a marathon is not an easy feat, especially with the hectic schedule of a college student. But with the right mindset, physical commitment, and social support, it is possible. Whatever the distance, running can relieve stress, improve endurance, and benefit our brains for years to come. All you have to do is go outside and take your first step.

Reach writer Claire Summa at Twitter: @sumclairvoyance


This article was updated at 7:19 p.m. on June 19, 2018 to correct the food and run screenshot photo bylines. The food was prepared and photographed by Claire Summa, and the run screenshots were from Olga Andreeva rather than Christine Betts.

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