Run for the Journey

Run for the Journey

How to Mentally Prepare for a Marathon

With the spring marathon season round the corner, your “2022 A race” may well be in sight. Or even if it’s not your A race, it’s almost certainly one of the races you are taking most seriously this year.

If you are relatively new to running or at least to marathon racing, one of your limiting factors may well be not knowing what you are really capable of.  So here are some tips and my thoughts for preparing yourself mentally for your marathon.

Do you know what you are capable of?

You may have been running for a while but during training may not have dug in as deep as you are used to – one of the reasons I believe athletes slow down as they age. Or maybe your perceived limit is based on your past running experience?

What about a young runner who has not yet learnt that in order to get the best out of themselves, they have to dig deep and endure tough patches in any race?

Not everyone wants to endure the pain of digging deep

Of course not every runner is either prepared to or wants to go through the pain and mental strength that this entails.  Plenty of people chat as they race and are prepared to walk or slow down if it begins to hurt.  Some might even quit if things get too tough. There is nothing wrong with that, but if you do want to test your limit, you definitely need to practise developing mental strength.

Parallel from the world of boxing 

It’s worth considering the mind-set in boxing, which is definitely a sport where you have to “dig in” when you are caught with a good shot.

Maybe surprisingly to some, not all boxers walk around permanently feeling as if they want to pick a fight. The aggression they need during a fight is built up gradually.  

In training they will get hit and learn to deal with it.  Although boxers become physically exhausted they develop the mental strength to fight back.  Through training they learn they will be OK and not to quit.

 Becoming mentally tough

"Although boxers become physically exhausted they develop the mental strength to fight back.  Through training they learn they will be OK and not to quit."

Back to running

Some coaches, psychologists and athletes believe that mental strength is something innate. I fundamentally disagree with this view point.

Coming from the world of boxing and being involved in training endurance sport for 30+ years has taught me that if you give people the tools to master their own headspace, they can become mentally tough.  But how?

In sports psychology there is something called “Thought Associated Process” (TAP). This cognitive approach focuses on how we think to simulate a response, which leads to a behavioural change.

Weak Point Plan (WPP)

To keep things simple I use something called a “Weak Point Plan” (WPP) where if you are feeling weak, you start your plan immediately.

You basically start a thought process to take your thought away from the negative ones you’re experiencing and replacing them with something positive or related to the moment.

You must be able to recognise the need and act instantly.  You also need to know it works to believe in the process.

The more you practise a technique, the better you become at it.  Therefore tapping into your WPP in training is the only way to become mentally stronger whilst racing.

5 Top Tips to Mental Strength

If you find the going is getting tough, why not try one of these Weak Point Plans below?

1) Count to 100.  

This is a technique used by many athletes including Paula Radcliffe: “When things get tough, I count in my head. With running, like anything in life, thinking how far you’ve got to go to get to where you want to be can be overwhelming. It’s good to learn techniques that help you focus and concentrate on doing the best you can ‘right now’. For me that’s counting to 100 – over and over again.”

2) Form/Technique.  

Try tapping into something about your physical motion and focus on it.  For example it might be powering your arms back and forth as if you are sawing wood.

3) Be “in the now.”

Try being in the moment as you run.  Listen to your rhythmic breathing or focus on your surroundings especially if you’re somewhere beautiful.  It’s amazing how you can stop negative thoughts just by doing this.

4) Relax

If you have set yourself high expectations it may be that your body is tense.  There is a close relationship between mind and body and in this situation it would be impossible to perform to the best of your ability. This is true for any activity – imagine a boxer entering the ring feeling tense – there is no way he can win.

Try relaxing your muscles and feel yourself flow.

5) Positive Self- statement

A positive mantra – for example “I can do this” - repeated over and over can be another effective technique for dealing with a rough patch.

Becoming mentally stronger is trainable

Obviously no one race is the same but I guarantee that if you become familiar with this technique in training, you will feel a million dollars for breaking through a tough patch.  

You then put it into practice during your racing and you will start to realise your potential.

As Prussian general and military theorist, Claus von Clausewitz said:

“Courage, above all things, is the first quality of a warrior.”

 Mentally preparing for a marathon

Written by: James Beckinsale, Iffley Road ambassador and leading triathlon and endurance sports coach.

Follow:  @eggsrinbasket

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James Beckinsale

Coach, Founder of Optima Racing Team & 2016 Kona Ironman Qualifier

James’s main long-term goal is “to be 80 years old still coaching happy athletes!”