Prepping your body for a race is only half the battle—here’s how to ready your brain to face 26.2 miles too
After logging all the miles prescribed on your training plan, your legs will probably be ready to run the marathon. But your mind is a whole different muscle. Most people overlook the mental preparation that can make life during training (and those 26.2 miles) much easier. Last year, a study at Staffordshire University in the U.K. looked at 706 ultramarathoners and found that mental toughness accounts for 14 percent of racing success—a fairly large chunk when your race takes multiple hours to complete. Bulk up your mental reserve now so you can tap into it on race day and make it to the finish line with this advice from sports psychologists who’ve worked with Olympic runners and marathon newbies.
The biggest mental mistake you can make as an athlete is to tie what you’re doing to your self-worth. Measuring success by whether you hit a certain time or place well in your age group piles on negative pressure from the start. When you begin training, instead of a results-based goal, set a more self-fulfilling one, like challenging yourself or trying to improve fitness. Later, on days when you’re struggling, push yourself by remembering the reason you’re running.
Running for a cause? That’s great; just consider this: “Many of the runners I work with run ‘in honor’ of someone, and they become terrified of not crossing the finish line and letting down that person in their life,” says Jeff Brown, Ph.D., a Boston Marathon psychologist, assistant clinical professor in the department of psychiatry at Harvard University, and author of The Winnerclinical. “People need to remember that they’re recognizing and honoring that person the moment they step up to the start line.”
“Usually when we’re trying to be positive on a run or in a race, we know we’re BS-ing ourselves,” says sports psychologist Steve Portenga, Ph.D., CEO of iPerformance Psychology and chair of the Psychological Services Subcommittee for USA Track & Field. “It feels good to tell yourself, ‘I’m great,’ but it’s a horrible way to self-coach, because we know it may not be necessarily true in that moment.”
He suggests focusing on something that has more mental heft: what your body feels like. Anytime you realize you’re having a good run, think about why that is: Are your shoulders relaxed? Are you running light on your feet? Did you find a good rhythm? Pick your favorite. Then, when you’re in the middle of a long run and begin to lose steam, bring your attention back to keeping your shoulders relaxed (or whatever your cue is). This will physically improve the way you’re running, and that will translate into a better mindset by keeping your focus on performance factors that you can control.
Agonizing about a difficult course or hard climb like Heartbreak Hill in Boston will do little to help you through it. Instead, Brown suggests taking action. If the race is nearby, run the parts that intimidate you ahead of time; if it’s an out-of-town race, walk the difficult part the day before. If you don’t have time to do either, use Google maps to survey the section. The key is to pay attention to the surroundings with all of your senses and pick out visual markers. “For example, if you pick a fire hydrant halfway up a hill as a marker, you’ll know you’re halfway done when you reach it,” explains Brown.
Make markers a source of positivity, strength, or just a visual cue for how much farther you have to go. Sit down before the race and visualize running the hard section and seeing your markers. “You’ll build it into your proactive brain that you’ve done this before,” says Brown. “Then you can use those markers as triggers to relax you as you come across them on race day,” says Brown.
Staying in the moment is crucial to running well, because it minimizes negative distractions like wondering how much mile 23 might hurt or how you’ll ever reach the finish line. But it takes practice. According to Portenga, during a 20-minute meditation, it can take someone 15 minutes to realize her focus has shifted away from her breathing before she switches back. “Imagine in a performance setting what can happen in that amount of time,” he says. “The meditation is not about preventing your mind from wandering, but building awareness for when it does.”
To practice, sit in a quiet room and focus on your breath and the feeling of your stomach as it goes in and out. When you notice your mind wander to something else, bring your thoughts back to a focus cue like your breathing, footsteps, or something else you can control in the moment.
Think about all the things that could go wrong in 26.2 miles and accept that they could happen. Yes, running a marathon will probably be painful at some point. Yes, you may be embarrassed if you have to stop or walk. Yes, you may be beaten by people 20 years your senior. Here’s the thing: The actual marathon is rarely as bad as you think it will be. “If you consider all of those fears ahead of time, you minimize surprise,” says Portenga, who suggests that first-timers talk to experienced marathoners. Ask them what they were most concerned about and, in retrospect, what was a waste of time to fret over?
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Rainy days and days when running feels like a slog are the perfect time to practice refocusing, according to Brown, since you don’t know what conditions you’ll face for your marathon. “There’s a part of the brain responsible for adapting to unique and novel situations so that we’re more apt to navigate them better when we see them again.”
Don’t put off your run on a rainy day—because it may very well rain during your race. Head out with only one power bar left on your iPod to see what it’s like running out of juice halfway through a run. Skip your normal pasta the night before a big run—or your normal gels and bars the day of—to see how your stomach handles the unexpected. Rehearse pulling yourself out of a bad training day. If you can get through a run with a light head cold or sleeting rain, not much will intimidate you on race day.