Running a Marathon: Goal Setting and Health Policy

By: Susan Barry, MPH (c), BSN

Memorial University of Newfoundland

Running is a sport that challenges and tests individuals, but rewards with immense gratification and pride. There’s nothing quite like the euphoric feeling of a successful run. The “runner’s high” is an exhilarated sensation of joy and accomplishment, free of emotional, and psychological stress. It is usually paired with a fatigued but exceptionally rewarding physiological sense of rapidly pumping blood throughout the body, powerful, oxygen-filled lungs, and tense, contracted muscles from the pounding of every step.

After running competitively and recreationally for the last seven years, I completed my first full marathon (42.2km) this fall in Toronto, ON. Of all I learned from this experience, the most noteworthy is that, if done correctly, race day should be the easy part. The hard part was the four months leading up to race day and the 544km I completed in training. A successful marathon is much more than having a healthy heart and young, non-arthritic knees. A network of many factors leads to the fulfilling outcome of crossing the finish line strong including fitness, nutrition, rest, commitment, dedication, sacrifice, positive mental health, cessation of negative habits, and family and social support. Each of these factors require a combination of education, practice, and ability which become more interrelated over time and solidify into a lifestyle.

Strong commitment and dedication to finish a marathon promotes an intense drive to improve physical fitness through a vigorous training program while effectively fueling the body with proper nutrition and allowing adequate rest. Sacrificing and removing negative habits such as alcohol consumption helps to shift the focus to replace them with positive behaviours that will better contribute to health status. Mental health is significant as exercise is known to alleviate symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression. The euphoria from overcoming mental challenges when pushing the body and mind past what was once its limit is intoxicating. Finally, the support and encouragement from family, training groups, coaches, and personal relationships is essential for times when those challenges test you the most.

Many of these factors are represented in the social determinants of health, especially physical environment, social environment, and education. Available resources such as safe, accessible roads and trails, access to affordable and nutritious foods, and a work life balance that permits time necessary for training all contribute to the success of marathon trainees. As there are several healthy habits encompassed in training for this goal, community members must be able to challenge their limiting social determinants of health. Healthy public policy addressing these determinants empowers community members to pursue their own goals regardless of the obstacles they face.

So, how can we explore the learnings of this rigorous process of training for a goal and apply it to public policy? The World Health Organization identifies that “the main aim of health public policy is to create supportive environments to enable people to lead healthy lives”. A marathon is just one example of a successful outcome from the accumulation of many healthy behaviours, facilitated by healthy public policy. The journey of training and preparing the body and mind to reach a goal, encompasses a cascade of decisions and actions, while always holding a vision of that goal. Lifestyles adapt to accommodate the diverse requirements to train or practice in order to succeed. Resources, infrastructure, and supports must be in place to guide and assist community members in various components of their training.

These learned behaviours build influence and generate inspiration for others whether that be a circle of friends, a running group, or a community. Empowering others to set goals for themselves and to be dedicated and rigorous creates a contagious drive that grows exponentially. Working towards small goals within a larger one while always maintaining a vision of accomplishment drives improvement and commitment. It’s not about running a marathon. It’s about completing whatever a marathon is to you and finding your “runner’s high” in completing that goal. What is your marathon?

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