Marathon Negative Splits

Marathon negative splits, as well as negative splits in half marathons and other races, can be very motivating, especially as you approach the finish line of your endurance race.

There is nothing like realizing in your final miles that you are completing the second 13.1 miles of your marathon faster than you completed the first 13.1 miles of it.

Research suggests that marathoners who distract themselves by studying their surroundings during a race can reduce their sensitivity to pain and fatigue and can reduce their sense of effort to complete the race. Psychologists use the phrase “dissociative thinking strategies” to refer to these kinds of thoughts.

In contrast, sports-psychology research generally suggests that “associative thinking strategies” — in which you pay close attention to your physiological state (breathing, heart rate, cadence, etc.) — is linked to achieving a faster pace.

For convenience, let's use “dissociation” to refer to dissociative thinking strategies, and let's use “association” to refer to associative thinking strategies.

So you can use dissociation while walking or running the first 13.1 miles of your race course to slow down slightly while reducing your sense of effort.

And you can use association while walking or running the second 13.1 miles of your marathon course to speed up.

But there is a psychological challenge related to negative splits and injuries:

  • Many marathoners develop injuries during the first of the two “legs” of their race.
  • So they must use dissociation during the second leg of the marathon to be able to finish.
  • But they should be using association during the second leg in order to leverage the motivation of racing with a negative split.

This forces a marathoner who has gotten injured in the first leg of the race to make a choice:

  • Use dissociation to bear the pain in the second leg of the race, but sacrifice the negative split and perhaps become demotivated — and further slowed — by the anticipated positive split.
  • Use association to get the motivational benefit of the anticipated positive split, but suffer from the increased awareness of the pain while heading toward the finish line.

Which choice do you prefer to make? Please leave a comment here. Thanks!

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