By Pete Dyson, Senior Behavioural Strategist at Ogilvy Change


Marathon running season is upon us; Boston had a hot race last week and the London Marathon 2017 commences at 10 am this Sunday. The term marathon has become synonymous with long struggles, great exertion and landmark achievements, but how did this come about and what strategies are available to make it a bit easier?

Why 26.2 miles?

The London Marathon started in 1981 and it feels like a it brings centuries of tradition along with it. The legend of Pheidippides is not a fiction, a soldier almost certainly did run from a battlefield near the town of Marathon to deliver news to Athens in 490 B.C, but there is no record of that distance being anything other than ‘about 25 hilly miles on a hot summers day’. The contemporary  26.2 mile length of the race is not actually a lovingly restored Greek tradition, it’s a romantic construction.

The Olympic movement of the 1880s turned to the Greek legend to invent the new ‘Marathon race’ and for the first three editions it was between 24 to 25 miles and won in about 3 hours. It was only a chance eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 1906 that caused Rome to back out and London to step into host the 1908 Olympics. The organisers had planned to follow precedent with a 25 mile course, but the Princess of Wales wanted the Royal children to see the spectacle, so the race was rerouted to start at Windsor Castle. This added the extra length to make it 26 miles and 385 yards and because the race itself was so legendary (the race leader collapsed in the final metres, was helped up and subsequently disqualified) that 1908 race set the new standard we’ve followed ever since.

Why is it so tough?

This exact distance is very significant both physically and mentally. A runner will burn about 100 calories per mile regardless of their pace; so if they go faster then they burn more calories per minute, if they go slower then they have more time to burn that fuel. It just so happens humans can only store about 2000 calories of quick running fuel, so whether you aim to complete the race in 2 hours, 4 hours or even 6 hours, you’re going to run low at about 20 miles and face a big challenge (aka ‘the wall’) with about 6 miles to go. Efforts to load up on carbohydrates before and consume sugary drinks during the event are psychological strategies proven to extend our range by a few more miles.

Mental strategies to ease the pain

The power of mental strategies available cannot be underestimated. Is it a coincidence that 78% of runners on Sunday will be raising money for charity? On the one hand this reflects their ambition to motivate friends and family to donate money to worthy causes. Perhaps an unintended consequence is the big commitment and sunk cost, which serves to enshrine their efforts with deeper meaning. The pursuit of a higher purpose is a Lucozade for the mind.

There are dozens of studies into marathon running, with the latest evidence pointing to a ‘psychobiological model’ that mediates exertion and performance. To test whether setting a target race time was also an effective motivational technique, a recent study asked runners to indicate how happy they anticipated being if they hit their time goal, beat it, or fell short of it. The study found two fascinating insights. Firstly that runners who pre-stated that their time was particularly important displayed larger loss aversion and performed better. Secondly, on average runners were much too optimistic about their chances, frequently showing an overconfidence bias by giving themselves unattainable goals. The lesson here would be to create personal strategies that make the target time more meaningful and attainable. Perhaps this is why experienced runners often play down their chances and keep their real targets to themselves.

Finally, a study investigated the significance of searching for meaning in life as you approach a new decade. These are people reaching the age of 29, 39, or 49 years (the technical term being “9-enders”) and they do appear to over-index in participating in marathons, presumably to fulfill a goal to ‘run a marathon before I’m forty’. Since their race times were also above average, we might conclude their fuel was a power blend of spiritual enlightenment and age-defying desperation.

For full disclosure, I will not be running the race on Sunday. When you’ve got a 7-ending birthday it’s worth playing the long game and holding out for another year.


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