Going the Distance: Lessons from Marathon Runners in Overcoming Chronic Emotional Pain

by Glynis Sherwood MEd

Overcoming long standing emotional pain is a marathon, not a sprint, leading to greater personal fulfillment and peace of mind.  Endurance, patience, and the ability to recognize positive changes – no matter how small – are both challenges and virtues to be cultivated in the recovery process.  Marathons – both as a metaphor for the recovery journey, and the mind set of runners who achieve their goals – have much to teach those of us on the path to overcoming long standing emotional pain.

By the time most people make it into my office they have usually been struggling with emotional distress for a while.  Sometimes not just weeks or months, but years.  For some folks it’s been a lifetime.  The thing they know is that they want relief as quickly as possible, and rightly so.  Enduring long term problems with anxiety, depression, grief or addictive behavior seriously undermines quality of life and relationships.  Although there is no quick fix, developing the ‘right’ mind set about recovery can be as helpful as any therapeutic strategies explored with a counsellor.

Lessons from Marathon Runners

Marathons represent the peak of athletic strength, stamina and resiliency.  And as with any endurance sport, you don’t just get up one day and complete a marathon.  Marathons are a showcase for months of training, and an intensely disciplined approach to physical fitness.  It’s the daily practice that enables marathon runners to progress further, steadily building their powers of endurance. 

Successful marathon runners – those who enjoy and continue with their sport – invest time and energy in cultivating ‘mental fitness’.  Mental fitness is the sum total of positive psychological habits that enable runners to maintain their commitment, especially when the going gets tough.  Marathon training contains many valuable lessons applicable to healing from long standing emotional pain such as chronic anxiety, grief, low self esteem, addictive habits or depression. 

The Positive Psychological Habits of Marathon Runners

Mental Fitness:  Central to the success of marathon runners is the ability to cultivate an affirmative mind set, specifically a positive attitude and optimistic expectations from their efforts.  They focus on visualizing themselves achieving their goals, and mentally distancing themselves from the discomfort and pain that are part of any long distance race.  These are ‘psychological skills’ that are key to any long term approach to breaking free from long standing emotional distress.

Successful marathon runners also adopt a realistic attitude towards pacing themselves.  When recovering from chronic emotional pain it’s equally important to know your comfortable ‘running’ speed and stick to it.  In other words, the pace of change needs to be enough so that you make progress, but not feel overwhelmed or stuck.  Finding your comfort zone with pacing also supports persistence.  Persistence, and the daily practice of new modes of effective living, are essential to creating the life you want.

Visualization:  Marathon runners not only visualize completing the race, but also visualize succeeding at key – often difficult – points in the race.  It can be helpful to anticipate potential bumps along the road to healing, and to give some thought to strategies you will employ to hold onto your vision while meeting those challenges constructively. Create a detailed vision for the new life you want to have after you have overcome long standing pain.  How do you want to be thinking, feeling, acting?  What kind of relationships do you want in your life?  The process of developing a new vision for your life creates the foundation for positive changes, and enables you to both stay on track when difficulties arise in recovery, and know when you have arrived at the destination you are seeking. 

Goals:  Effective marathon runners are aware of their goals and break them down into the steps needed to achieve their target.  For example, slowing down or speeding up during parts of the race, while holding the vision of crossing the finish line at a time that represents their personal best.

To break free from chronic emotional pain it’s important to know both where you want to be – your long term goal – and what you need to do regularly to reach your objective.  For example, if your goal is to reduce or eliminate anxiety, identify what do you need to do daily to cultivate greater peace of mind.  You may need to work on overcoming negative beliefs or expectations; use physical relaxation techniques to reduce physical stress that exacerbates anxiety; build in quiet time to get in touch with your emotions and needs; get out of unfulfilling or abusive relationships; create more work-life balance; or learn to speak up for yourself more.

Motivation:  To maintain their drive and enthusiasm, marathon runners will often team up with others when training.  Similarly, people in recovery from emotional challenges can benefit tremendously from joining therapy or peer support groups as they work towards their goal of a more peaceful, satisfying life.  Groups are made up of people who understand what you are going through and share similar goals – making the journey less lonely, and providing back up when you feel discouraged or stuck. 

Another helpful motivator for successful marathon runners is to focus on the present.  As you do your recovery work overcoming chronic emotional pain, it’s extremely helpful to concentrate on the moment you are in, especially as an antidote to anxiety or depression.  Staying present allows you to get more out of life as it’s being lived, and keeps your attention on what you can control best, i.e. the present. 

Perspective:  If you have been in pain for a long time, then creating the life you want will involve a learning curve.  The point is that – like effective long distance runners – developing healthy psychological habits that support your vision will help sustain the daily discipline of creating a new life that eventually feels comfortable and rewarding.

Need help overcoming longstanding emotional challenges?   Contact Glynis to Request an Appointment.  


Counselling is available online by Video worldwide.

Glynis Sherwood – MEd, Canadian Certified Counsellor, Registered Clinical Counsellor, Certified Addictions Counsellor is a Counselling Therapist specializing in recovery from long standing Anxiety, Depression, Grief, Addictive Behaviors and Relationship problems.