Why we taught psychology students how to run a marathon

This article by ,   PhD Researcher in Behavioural and Positive Psychology, Bangor University, was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Mike Fanelli, champion marathon runner and coach, tells his athletes to divide their race into thirds. “Run the first part with your head,” he says, “the middle part with your personality, and the last part with your heart.” Sage advice – particularly if you are a third year psychology student at Bangor University, preparing for one of the final milestones in your undergraduate experience: running the Liverpool Marathon.

For many students, the concluding semester of third year is a time of uncertainty. Not only are they tackling the demands of a dissertation and battling exams, but they are also teetering on the precipice of an unknown future, away from the comfort of university.

As spring draws to a close, the academic atmosphere provides a heady cocktail of sleep-deprivation, achievement and stress. Yet 22 of our students managed to do all this and train for a marathon as part of their “Born To Run” class. None of them had completed such a distance before – in fact, most had run no further than 5km prior to their module induction.

Rewind several months, and I am listening to my PhD supervisor, John Parkinson, and fellow academic Fran Garrad-Cole discuss their plans for “the running module”, which would coincide with more traditional lectures on postive and motivational psychology. I was greatly enthused by the idea given the psychological benefits of physical activity. Exercise is related to improvements in mood, self-esteem and social integration, as well as reducing symptoms of depression.

Particularly relevant to those under pressure at work or school, is the association between physical activity and the ability to cope with stress, as well as enhanced cognitive functioning. But despite these benefits, designing a class around running a marathon was no easy task.

As neither module organiser nor student, it was easy for me to relish the gamble of this venture. My participation – assisting the classes and helping the students to train for the marathon – did not place my professional reputation on the line, nor did it have the potential to significantly impact the outcome of my degree. The danger with this kind of practical application is that when things fail, the failure is highly visible.

It would be easy to reduce “success” into a binary distinction of running or not running on race day. Yet this perspective would very much miss the point. The aim of the module wasn’t to complete a marathon, but to create graduates who set huge challenges, and nail them, whenever that may be.

Not every student ran the marathon, but for the 13 who did, the three who ran the half, and those who didn’t run at all, the lessons on perseverance and resilience demonstrate that failure can be an essential component of success.

The message from the Born to Run module was essentially one of courage. T S Elliot once said, “Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” This statement rings true on multiple levels. It was visible in the students’ bravery in publicly committing to such a challenging goal, John and Fran’s professional risk, and in both the mental and physical ardour that training for a marathon takes.

What I saw was the incredible impact that setting high expectations balanced with warm support and strategic expertise can have on student engagement. Most importantly, I learnt how bringing your own passion into the classroom can transform the learning experience, transcending both their academic and personal life.

So to return to Mike Fanelli, the final stages of the module, as well as the marathon, are about the heart. The technical strategies the students learnt saw them through the first few miles, and the traits they were encouraged to develop enabled them to cover the next third. But in the final part, when delirium sets in, it’s the emotional bond created by such a challenging yet supportive experience that gets you through.

The pleasure I felt at eventually crossing the line was multiplied immeasurably by sharing this experience with the others I have seen develop over the semester. I will be forever grateful to one student, Patrick, for pulling me through that last mile, and forever in awe of Fran, John and the first ever Born to Runners.



Publication date: 14 September 2017