Setting a target is part and parcel of being a marathon runner – male professionals dream of being the first to break the mythical two-hour time, while many amateurs strive to reach the finish line inside three hours.

“Paula [Radcliffe] was so ahead of her time,” said Deena Kastor, the 2004 Olympic marathon bronze medalist and only American woman to break 2:20. “It seems so untouchable that women are just running to win. No one believes in going for 2:15.”

But why are these particular round numbers so important?

The two-hour (men’s) marathon is today’s equivalent of the four-minute mile, but every marathon participant has their own target: be it the 2:20 that is the threshold in the top-level women’s race, the four hours, 3:30 or three hours that are the goal for amateur runners, or even the five hours that some first-timers aim for.

Surely there’s a more biologically meaningful target – the body doesn’t work in hours or minutes.

For example, why shouldn’t four hours, 19 minutes and 27 seconds (the average finishing time for men in US marathons) be the goal, or simply “run it as fast as you can”? And does the target matter anyway? Are you limited by the energy your body can physically contribute, or does your mind have some say in the outcome?

 

Timing is everything

Research by Eric Allen, Patricia Dechow, Devin Pope and George Wu provides an interesting insight into the psychology of marathon running.

A model of decision-making known as ‘prospect theory’ predicts that people will feel worse about just missing their target than if they miss it by a larger margin.

The theory predicts that people will work much harder when they are about to reach their target, than when they have either beaten it or missed it. In other words, if you’re confident of beating your four-hour target you will relax a bit, and not try extra hard to reach 3:50.

This diagram (from Heath, Larrick and Wu 1999) shows that if two people have different targets – 30 or 40 sit-ups, in this example – the person with a target of 30 will put much less effort into sit-up number 35 than the person who is aiming for 40.

The four psychologists set out to test this theory with the benefit of modern marathon technology – the computer chips that record the finishing time of each runner, and their progress at each kilometre marker along the way.

Using the data produced by these chips they were able to analyse the exact pace of over nine million marathon runs.

Chart of marathon finishing times (from Allen et al, 2015), showing peaks at half-hour intervals.

The research found that not only do people set round-number targets for themselves, but those targets have a big impact on how fast they run.

If someone targets a four-hour finish, and they get past the 40 kilometre marker at 3:48:30, they know they can just make it if they keep running hard enough for the last two kilometres. The four-hour peak in the chart above shows that nearly everyone summons up the energy for that last push.

But if it’s already 3:50:00 when they reach that mark, they give up hope and slow down. The result: almost nobody finishes the marathon in four hours and five seconds – if you don’t get under four hours, you will probably relax at the end and complete it in 4:02 or 4:03.

The chart below shows that people who are on track to come in just below four hours (or other round numbers) speed up significantly, while those who are just over the target slow down.

Chart from Allen et al, 2015 showing the average running pace for the last two kilometres, compared to the same runner’s pace before that point.

Technology plays a big part

Technology has transformed the way professional and recreational athletes prepare for and take part in marathons – from wearable devices that enable runners to train effectively, to apps that offer accurate route tracking capabilities.

Record numbers took part in this year’s Virgin Money London Marathon, while raising awareness and huge amounts of cash for worthy causes. Many of these runners relied on technology to some extent.

The official London Marathon app – supplied by the marathon’s official technology partner, Tata Consultancy Services – is one such piece of technology that benefits both runners and spectators.

The number and variation of high-tech products linked to running will most likely increase as more and more people take to pounding the streets and hitting the gym.

Ultimately, technology isn’t going to do the running for you – but when used correctly it can motivate you to push through the pain barrier and shave a few minutes off your personal best.

 

Tips for marathon runners

It matters what target you set. If you pick a number that’s realistic for you – maybe a little challenging but not impossible – your brain and your body can work together to get you across the line in time.

If you pick a number that’s too ambitious, or not ambitious enough, you’ll end up running more slowly.

Your numbers should be meaningful to you. If a round number makes a clear, memorable target for you, then go for it.

The good news is that every marathon runner these days is able to accurately measure against their own goals as a timing chip is given to them.

But this lesson does not necessarily just apply to the marathon.

If you have monthly targets at work, or a savings amount you want to meet, or are aiming for a certain number of calories in your diet – the goal really does matter.

The key is always to pick goals in life that are just ahead of what you know you can do. By doing this your achievements will gradually improve over time.

 

Leigh Caldwell is a behavioural economist and partner at The Irrational Agency. If you are interested in hearing more from Leigh, please follow him on Twitter and take a look at his book, The Psychology of Price.

 

References:

Heath, C., Larrick, R. P., & Wu, G. (1999). Goals as reference points. Cognitive psychology38(1), 79-109.

Allen, E. J., Dechow, P. M., Pope, D. G., & Wu, G. (2016). Reference-dependent preferences: Evidence from marathon runners. Management Science.