The Mental Side of the Marathon

how to conquer the mental side of the marathon

Your mind gives up far before your body will. Apparently, when your head tells you to quit, your body is only 40% DONE.

This weekend, I ran the Reading Half Marathon, and felt pretty miserable for about 10 miles of it, I even joked that I would have bailed on the race if I had known how to get back to my car…but I don’t know my way round Reading so I had to keep running.

In all honesty, it was a mental battle to keep pushing through to the end. I only just managed to convince myself to pull out a sprint finish.

But it is brilliant mind training for the marathon. The marathon is a mental challenge as much as a physical challenge – not only in the 12/16 week build up but on race day too.

the mental side to marathon training

I recently had a chat with my friend Corey who is training for the London marathon about the mental battle that comes with marathon training long runs. You build it up SO much in your head, making the run seem like this HUGE, unachievable goal. Whether that’s a 13 mile, a 16 mile or a 20 mile long run, you need to mentally get in the game. If I’m not in the right headspace, the long run (or tempo/threshold/speed run) isn’t going to happen, I’ll swap it with an easy run, knowing I won’t perform at my best if my head isn’t there.

the mental side to marathon training

I partnered with Monster iSport Wireless Headphones to share some of my favourite strategies to develop mental strength, and keep your head in the game during your long runs and the 26.2 miles on race day;

  • Run somewhere you love. It might not be the most convenient place to run, but it can make your heart and head happy. I’ve driven into London (45-60min drive) to complete my long runs on my old favourite route along the Thames from Chiswick to Putney – Richmond and back. I know where the mile ‘markers’ are without having to look at my watch, I know where to stop for water (or the loo) and running by the water makes me so happy. My best long run this cycle happened here, where I ran an 8.17 average for 17 miles without clock watching.
  • Break up your long run. I rarely have a ‘X mile long run’ on my training plan, mostly they are broken up into ‘5 mile warm up, 4 X 2 miles with 0.25 mile recoveries, 3 mile cool down’ style. Having small manageable chunks makes it easier to complete it, I focus on the set that I’m in, not the total mileage for the day.
  • Switch your watch view. Anyone else nearly got a crick in their neck due to obsessive watch checking during training or a race? I know I’m not the only one who *has to* check my Garmin to ensure I’m on pace every 5 seconds, only to let the number flashing up directly affect my mood and mindset. During the tough Reading Half last weekend, I switched the watch face to the time, meaning I had to physically change the interface to see my pace. It helped me relax and run on feel rather than be dictated by the pace. Similarly, during the Chicago marathon, as soon as I knew I wasn’t going to run my goal time, I took my watch off and gave it to Tom. I wanted to enjoy the marathon as much as I could and knew that I wouldn’t if I still had my Garmin bleeping at me. Try some training runs without relying on your watch for pace, and if things are going tits up during the race, turn it off… remember you run for fun.
  • Get someone to make you a playlist. Tom always makes me a marathon playlist including a number of my fave songs, old school classics and the current charts, this keeps me looking forward to the next song, smiling when one of ‘our’ songs come on, or having a blast from the past when a 90’s hit pops up. It’s also a great idea to get all of your loved ones to contribute a song to help you keep putting one foot in front of each other (we did this for a friend a few years ago and I added ‘just keep swimming’ from Finding Nemo!) Check out Monster’s #Runlikeamonster running playlist if you need some inspiration.

how to conquer the mental side of the marathon

how to conquer the mental side of the marathon

  • Save your music until you really need it…having said that I get a great playlist made, I usually try to save it until the 18 mile mark (or before/after) when I really need it. It’s the moment when you think ‘I’m struggling’ or when you’re about to hit THE WALL. It can be just the pick me up you need. Also it mentally breaks up the run into two parts; the pre-music run and the music fuelled ‘race’ when it gets tough… use the music to push through. You can then pump it right up – there’s even a feature on the Monster iSport wireless headphones that means you can choose the level of base you use – the normal mode is a calmer level whilst Turbo pumps it right up to boost you when you need it.
  • Repeat a mantra that will help you through. Some of my personal favourites are ‘Pain is temporary, pride is forever’, and ‘one day you won’t be able to do this, today is NOT that day’. Whatever quote you need to fire up that determination that will get you out of bed to run, will push you to finish those 18 miles or to not give up when things seem so bleak at the 20 mile mark. Think about everything you’ve sacrificed to get to this point, the people supporting you, those who are so proud of you, and remember to be proud of yourself.
  • Visualise the route. I actually have never done this but listened to it during Kelly Robert’s podcast. Imagine yourself at the start, running through the course, and prepare yourself for things to go wrong, for things to hurt, for the weather to play up, for your stomach to feel off. You can’t affect what will happen on race day but you can change how you will react to these situations. Focus on your breathing and form, on those things you can control, practice overcoming the things that might go wrong.

how to conquer the mental side of the marathon

  • Stay positive. Recently, the quote ‘positive things happen to positive people’ was shared with me, and I think it’s so true. I let my negativity affect my entire race last weekend – stay positive, focus on the mile you’re in (not your finish time), and stay in the moment. In all honesty, if I had just relaxed on Sunday I probably could have run 45 seconds faster and run a PB, but instead I concentrated on the fact that I wasn’t going to run a 1.45 and let that overwhelm me – and ultimately ruin my race.

Any other tips you’d like to share? I think my mental strength is something I am really proud of when it comes to running – I kept pushing during the Paris marathon wanting to finish strong and proud of my time even when I knew I’d missed my sub 4 goal (I ran a 4.00.36) although I did cry my eyes out afterwards!

Mental motivation for the marathon - how to train your brain

The Monster iSport Wireless headphones look a little odd, but stay in your ears so well and are really comfortable. Also, I am a technophobe and can actually use them. They are super lightweight and could easily be stuffed into a pocket before the race and pulled out when you need them (don’t forget to link them on your bluetooth before setting off). The 8 hour battery life means they won’t die mid-marathon either, and you can use the universal ControlTalk in-line remote to ring your spectators to make sure you don’t miss them on the sidelines! There’s 90% noise cancellation (great for the gym, commutes and aeroplanes) but please be careful and stay safe when you’re out on training runs – and you don’t want to miss those cheering for you.

4 Comments

  1. Corrie
    March 22, 2017 / 12:29 pm

    Love these ideas! For my first sub 4 marathon I defintaley went out too fast and hit a wall making the last 6 miles treacherous. Thankfully I had a few mantras I wanted to remember and kept repeating them on the mile markers from 6 down to 1. My favorite was reminding myself that not everyone has the opportunity to run, whether due to physical restraints or worse, no freedom as a woman to run, and that I should be grateful for every single step!

  2. March 22, 2017 / 3:01 pm

    Those headphones look really cool! They look comfortable too. Great ideas about the long runs. Looking at 18 or 20 miles on a training schedule is a bit overwhelming. I feel your pain on the 4:00:36 finish…. I ran a 4:00:00 last fall!! Seriously, not one second less?? Ugh. But hey, it makes a good story to tell people 🙂

  3. March 24, 2017 / 1:22 am

    I was running in Denver (and I am from NYC so the altitude is a factor). I switched my Garmin’s view to heart rate to focus on how hard I was working instead of distance. It really helped mentally.

  4. gfeliciano
    March 27, 2017 / 1:54 am

    Ugh completely feel you in all the points! I remember my first marathon in Texas, the Fort Worth Cowtown and that was a brutal mental battle to get myself through the last ten miles or so. Good luck with your training!

    Now if only I could beat the mental battle to blog more! LOL

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