How to Mentally Train for a Marathon


Training for a marathon isn’t just about building muscle and endurance. Your mind has a lot to do with how well you’ll run the day of the marathon. Actually, a Staffordhire University UK study conducted by John Hall, a performance psychologist, reports that mental toughness greatly influences the success runners have in a race. Most of the participants in the study who were confident in their abilities and were able to control their physical discomfort performed significantly better than those who did not have those attributes. Concentration, determination, and a stable attitude also had an influence on how well runners performed during a race. With these characteristics identified, you’re probably wondering how to develop them in yourself. The following ways can help you mentally train for a marathon.

Imagine What It Looks Like to Run Faster

The mind is a powerful thing. If you can imagine it, you can do it. Matt Fitzgerald, author of Brain Training for Runners says:

“Proprioceptive cues are images and other sensory cues that enable you to modify your stride for the better as you think about them while running.”

These cues not only identify problems in the way you’re running, but it can improve the way you run to increase speed and decrease discomfort.

Start with a clear image of what it would look like to run fast for a long distance. Once you have that image in mind, hone in on your legs, feet, and your arms. What are they doing? Hold that information in mind and try to mimic them when you run. You can do the same with the way you feel. Imagine how you will feel when you run faster and farther, and then coach yourself before you do it. Tell yourself to slow down your breathing and relax your body. By imagining how you will feel, you can teach your body what to do when you are running.

Focus on the Process instead of the Results

You may want to achieve a specific distance and/or time, but that’s not what you should focus on – it will only leave you feeling defeated. It’s important to focus on the “now,” and the “now” is the process. According to Stan Beechman, Ph.D., sports psychologist:

“If you focus on results, you take yourself out of the now. And it’s the now that allows for the results later.”

The future is dependent on what you do now. When you focus on the now, you focus on the process, which changes the future (the results).

As you’re focusing on the present, learn to trust yourself, says Coach Tina. When you trust that you’ll get stronger, you’ll be better able to handle the discomfort you’re in as you’re training. For every step you take forward, you’re getting stronger, and the stronger you become, the closer you will get to your goals.

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Remain Positive While Running

Running for hours and hours and not seeing an increase in speed may be discouraging, but don’t let negativity seep into your training. Pessimism is the most common mental roadblock for runners, according to a study by Cindra S. Kamphoff, Ph.D., who is the director of the Center for Sport and Performance Psychology at the Minnesota State University. Negative thinking runners exhibit self-defeating behaviors that lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, you may tell yourself you’ll never run a 6 minute mile. Just by thinking this, you end your workout early or you may even quite the race. Just because you allowed yourself to think negatively, you didn’t follow through, which is the self-defeating behavior.

Since it can be difficult for runners to stay positive, mental exercises can help decrease negativity. The Power of Positive Self-Talk by Gregory Jantz suggests writing down negative thoughts. Next to each negative thought, write down a positive one. This can be hard at first, but put in the effort and you’ll soon find you’ll do it without writing them down.

Plan What You’ll Do If You Feel You’ve “Hit the Wall”

A plan for when you “hit the wall” will help you recover quickly. What’s interesting is that according to a sport psychology study, only 43% of marathoners truly hit a wall. Most runners simply hit a mental wall, rather than a physical one in which the body isn’t able to continue at the same pace or at all.

Since mental walls are more common and much easier to overcome, mental toughness is essential. The best way to get over the mental wall is to break down the run into manageable goals. Instead of telling yourself you only have five more miles to go, tell yourself you just want to finish the next mile. When you finish that mile, go for the next one. Many people end up getting through the mental block by the time they reach the second mile and can continue without as much effort.

It’s important to trust in your training, according to Jannine Myers, a RRCA-certified women’s running coach. When you’re training your body and mind, you’ll gain strength. When the day of the race comes, remember that you’ve prepared for it, and that will get you through.

Stressors can make the mental wall even more difficult to overcome. Identifying the stressors that are contributing to the roadblock and then working to reduce or eliminate them while you’re training can help you know what to do while you’re racing. One of the most common mental roadblocks is inward dissociation.

“It is likely that being distracted from sensory signals and important aspects of the task meant that runners were not able to judge their pace very well and failed to stay fully hydrated, contributed greatly to hitting The Wall.” according to Clare D. Stevinson and Styart J.H. Biddle, researchers for a 1998 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

Paying too much attention to the body can magnify discomfort leading slowing down and/or giving up on the race. It’s best to regularly check in with the body, but spend most of the time focused on external stimuli, such as the environment.

Boost Confidence While Training

“Lack of confidence leads to anxiety and tension and reduced motivation,” according to Kamphoff. Confidence is up to the runner and his/her mind.

Work on boosting confidence during training. The only way to build it is to achieve goals, but those goals have to be easily achieved and lead to bigger goals. Fitzgerald says that hitting numbers is key to confidence building during a workout. Just make sure the workouts aren’t too difficult or exhausting because then you’ll feel defeated. It’s better to end a workout feeling as though you could have run faster or gone farther than not wanting run again.

Visualization, focusing on the process, remaining positive, having a plan for when you hit mental walls, and boosting your confidence in achieving your running goals can all help you become the best runner you can be. The marathon is your chance to show yourself how strong you’ve become because of your training – your preparation. With your mind, body, and soul working together, you’ll show yourself that you can and will accomplish anything you put your mind to – in running and life.

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