You’ve got your running plan, but mental fitness is crucial to making through 26.2 miles. These seven tips will prep your brain for the big day
Running a marathon is as much a mental battle as a physical one. With the slog of long runs and endless weeks of training come the inevitable doubts and fears that creep into many a first- (and second- and third-) time marathoner’s mind. Train your brain while training your body (with the right race training plan) with seven tips meant to help flex your mental muscle come race day.
“The enormity of running 26.2 miles can be overwhelming,” says 78-time marathoner and coach Mark Kleanthous, author of The Mental Battle. Triathlon. “The majority of marathon runners experience some form of self-doubt in the final weeks before marathon day. This is completely normal.” Runners might worry about getting sick, getting injured, facing bad weather, being underprepared, having an off day, the list goes on.
But rather than worrying about weather, a race-week cold, and other unpredictable factors, Kleanthous suggests focusing on what you can control: sleep, nutrition, and hydration. Test out what works for you early in training, then stick to it in the weeks leading up to race day until your routine is second nature. “You’ll build up an inner confidence without even realizing it,” Kleanthous says.
“Failing to mentally rehearse what to do if things go wrong is arguably one of the biggest factors in a disappointing marathon,” Kleanthous explains. Form a plan A and plan B for common race day problems, like starting out too fast or being underfueled, and practice shifting goals during training runs. “The more you think about these experiences and how you plan to overcome them, the better you’ll be able to deal with problems during the actual marathon,” Kleanthous says.
Just avoid dwelling on worst-case scenarios during race week. Doomsday thinking can cause tension and fear, Kleanthous cautions. (The Top 10 Fears Marathoners Experience) That is, unless you’re imagining yourself overcoming them, which bring us to the next tip.
Research shows that visualizing success leads to positive outcomes in sports. One study published in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology found that college athletes who routinely imagined themselves winning in competition also demonstrated the most mental toughness. In fact, visualization was the strongest predictor of psychological willpower.
But don’t just mentally rehearse your best-case scenario, Kleanthous says. Imagine yourself in your most feared scenario (having to walk, falling and getting hurt), and then visualize overcoming it. This technique will train your mind to pull you through on race day.
If you’re running without a mantra, it’s time to find one. Most marathoners have a few phrases that get them through tough spots in training and on race day. Whether it’s something simple, like “one mile at a time,” or motivational, like “just keep pushing,” having a few words of wisdom on hand can help pull you through a rough patch on the road. “Positive self-talk is a powerful tool,” Kleanthous says. Practice motivational speech during training runs to find phrases that work for you. Having a few options will help get you up a steep hill, calm you when you get tense, or keep your pace pumping when fatigue sets in. (Need some suggestions? Trainers Reveal: Motivational Mantras That Get Results)
Chunk your run: approaching a marathon or any long run in sections—a technique known as "chunking"—helps mentally break up the effort of running for hours, says renowned coach and Olympian Jeff Galloway in Marathon: You Can Do It!
“The thought of the overall marathon distance becomes much easier to swallow when you break it down into smaller, more digestible, bite-size pieces,” agrees marathoner and blogger Danielle Nardi. Some runners think of 26.2-miles as two 10-milers with a 10k at the end. Others tackle it in five-mile segments or smaller increments between walk breaks. In training, mentally break long or intimidating runs into chunks. Staring down five miles at a time can feel less daunting than 20 in one go.
Many a marathoner will doubt their training: whether they’re doing enough mileage, enough long runs, enough tune-up races, and more. “They often question themselves hundreds of times without coming to a conclusion,” Kleanthous says. But an endless loop of wondering if you’ve done “enough” can lead to a downward spiral of negative thoughts.
Instead of handwringing, review your training log when you start to question your preparation. Seeing the miles you’ve racked up through weeks of hard work will boost your confidence. “Tell yourself you did as much as you can and realize that doing extra will jeopardize your chances of success,” Kleanthous adds. Keeping and reviewing your log will help you focus on what you have done instead of wondering if you haven’t done enough.
If you’re a data-driven runner, be sure to ditch your GPS watch from time to time, especially as race day approaches. Checking and double-checking your speed can lead to self-doubt, especially if you’re not hitting your target paces. Sometimes, you just have to trust your training. (Also try these other 4 Unexpected Ways to Train for a Marathon.)
Instead, run without a watch based on feel. Choose a familiar route so that it’s easier to gauge your effort. Similarly, if you always run with music, leave your headphones at home from time to time. “Tuning into your body is a vital ingredient to having a great marathon,” Kleanthous says. “Listen to your breathing and the sound of your feet. Enjoy your own company.”