Olympic marathoner on how to set goals, the role of technology in running and why it’s crucial to get the basics right

To coincide with the release of her new book, Marathon Wisdom, we ask two-time Olympian Mara Yamauchi to pass on some of the key lessons she has learned from her running career.

Q: How important is it to set yourself clear targets – and have goals which excite you?

A: Goals are a very useful tool for providing direction, motivation and structure for your efforts. I used outcome and process goals – they both have value in different ways – and set myself long- and short-term goals. In the final stages of a marathon, I always used small goals such as getting to the next lamp post, to maintain my concentration and a positive mindset.

But goals should not be set in stone. Always be ready to tweak and adjust them if you find yourself going off track. During periods of injury or when my training was not going well, I would adjust my goals down to easily achievable targets.

Q: Is there a trend for overcomplicating what is a very simple sport? Is there a tendency to overlook the basics/fundamentals?

A: Yes! Running is perhaps the most simple sport we have and yet we always seem to find ways to complicate it. The central message of my book is to keep things simple, focus on what is important and do the basics properly. At the 2007 Sapporo Half Marathon, one of the best races I ever ran, I removed my watch before the start. I just raced it, start to finish, as fast as I could! This is the essence and beauty of our sport. Nowadays, it’s easy to get distracted by social media, the copious amounts of information everywhere, and gadgets. Sometimes I try to forget about all that and just enjoy plain, unadulterated running!

Q: How underrated is the idea of getting the small stuff right?

A: Attention to detail is important but this will never be a substitute for the big, important inputs –  training, rest and fuel. I am a details person and always try to leave no stone unturned but I learned that there is a limit to the usefulness of this approach, because we all have a finite amount of time and energy available each day.

There’s no point perfecting a fabulous icing if you haven’t baked a solid cake first. Before a big race, I used to write lists of all the small tasks I had to complete, such as wearing in my kit and checking the start procedures. I could then tick these off in good time, thereby freeing up energy and focus for training, rest and fuel.

Mara Yamauchi (Mark Shearman)

Q: How do you feel about the role of technology within running? Are we too reliant on devices such as GPS watches, for example?

A: All technology has its uses – I used a heart rate monitor to guide my training and different levels of effort – but I feel the impact of technology on running is a mixed bag. For example, I see many runners allowing their GPS watches to dictate too much how they run. Learning to judge and control your effort is a skill that every runner should learn, and I’m not sure that GPS watches help with this.

My views on the impact of carbon plate shoes on running are certainly mixed. This is one piece of technology which is here to stay and I’m sure will continue to be controversial.

Q: It can be easy to follow what others are doing. Why should you only be doing what’s right for you? 

A: There is only one person whose training and performance you can control – yourself – so my advice is to focus on that and do your best at it. Of course, we can all learn from observing others. In insight 8 in my book, I describe what I call the “Art of Copying” – using what others are doing but adapting it to suit your own needs and circumstances. This is important, because everyone is different. Rigidly copying what another athlete is doing may or may not work for you. I tried copying many aspects of Japanese athletes’ training and preparation. Sometimes this worked and at other times not. Objective self-awareness and learning what works for you are key to understanding what to copy and what to ignore.

Q: What are the common traps you see athletes falling into? Is there a tendency to expect too much too soon? 

A: When you are improving, the excitement can make you impatient for more rapid progress, and lead you to make changes to your routine, but this overlooks perhaps the most important lesson of all: if things are going well, just keep doing more of the same. 

If you are fortunate enough to figure out a training routine which makes you improve, why change it? 

I think it is also really important to learn to judge yourself and your performances objectively, and give yourself credit when you deserve it. Being at the mercy of armchair critics doesn’t always end well!

Neglecting glute activation and conditioning is another common mistake. Because we all sit down so much these days, it’s easy for our glutes to become deconditioned, and this leads to all sorts of trouble. If you’re going to do just one exercise, make it a glute one!

Liz Yelling, Paula Radcliffe, Mara Yamauchi (Mark Shearman)

Q: A lot of runners can be very hard on themselves. Is it important to give yourself credit for the little wins and successes?

A: Absolutely! There is no end to success in our sport. An Olympic champion could win a second title or a world record-holder break their record again, so you must stop and pause after each little success, however small, and appreciate and celebrate it. 

I regret not doing enough of this during my career – I was always too impatient! Successes, however you define them for yourself, can be fleeting, so make the most of them and cherish them when you can.

I am a sucker for cakes so chocolate cake was top of my list of ways to celebrate. I found that having a debrief with myself – writing down what was good and what could be improved – was really helpful for identifying positive things, even after a disappointing performance.  

Q: How valuable is it to make mistakes? What were the biggest ones you learned from?

A: Mistakes are inevitable for all of us and are great ways to learn. At the 2007 Osaka World Championships, I surged too early and paid for it in the final stages, finishing a disappointing ninth. But, the following January, I returned to Osaka for the 2008 International Women’s Marathon and deliberately held back until well into the second half. I won this race – my only marathon victory – and defeated some big names, so the redemption was sweet!  

Q: Is there one race from your career which you would like to be given a second chance to run again? Which one would it be and why?

A: The 2008 Beijing Olympics. I was chastened by messing up my tactics at the previous summer’s World Championships, and therefore was lacking confidence going into this race. But I was in the shape of my life and should have raced more aggressively.

One regret I have is not having raced more marathons which I had a realistic chance of winning, and setting out to win them. I think this would have developed my racing skills and tactical nous and therefore given me more confidence for the major championships. The marathon is too often a time trial these days. I would love to see more athletes going into races of the appropriate level to win them.

Q: Should runners/athletes make time to reflect and review in terms of what they feel is working and what isn’t? 

A: Of course – this is perhaps the most important element of achieving long-term improvement, because it is the opportunity to identify and fix any major problems. The time after a race or when the season is over is a useful time to pause, step back and reflect. There may be things other than training – such as food, sleep or work stress – which, despite your best efforts in training, may be preventing further improvement and it’s useful to identify these as soon as possible. Taking time away from running while you do this is also helpful, to bring perspective and take a longer view of where you are heading.

Q: Did you keep a training diary and in what ways did/does that help?

A: Yes, always! I recorded all the key information I felt I needed: training, times, how I felt, location, weather, resting heart rate, body weight, shoes I wore, etc. When I produced a great performance, I often repeated much of my preparation for other races, because I knew it worked.

Similarly, when things weren’t going well, it would help me to spot the causes. Latterly I got bogged down in recording too much information and detail. Now I look back at my training diaries, I am proud of the training I did, even if they are a bit sweary here and there when I was having a tough time!   

Q: How did you combat any fear of failure?

A: With difficulty! I think fear of failure is never far away for athletes, because we are all striving to do something very special. The best tip I can offer is to focus on yourself, and the task at hand, and to prepare properly for it. This takes your mind away from what might go wrong and displaces anxiety. I think setting realistic goals and then not moving them upwards without careful thought is important here, otherwise you can set yourself up for “failure” when actually you have achieved what you set out to do.

Adjusting to being a recreational level masters athlete, after being a world-class elite athlete without feeling like a failure has, I must admit, been very hard. For anyone over the age of 40, careful and judicious resetting of goals is a must!

Q: Is the key piece of advice to remember you should be enjoying yourself?

A: Yes! Running is such a fabulous, simple and inexpensive sport. It gives us lifelong friendships, good physical and mental health, being out in the fresh air, the exhilaration of going faster and improving, the opportunity to travel, dreams of glory with your team-mates and much else besides. There is a lot of pain and heartache, too, but running is such a fundamental part of the human condition, and it is how we have survived all this time. There is a lot about it that we can enjoy! 

» You can pre-order Marathon Wisdom here

» This article first appeared in the June issue of AW magazine, which you can buy here