Running a marathon in the mind
Mind your language: We either go with the self-belief that we can achieve the goal we have set ourselves, or we feel unsure and tell ourselves it doesn’t matter. That inner self-critical voice can crush our marathon goals, so be aware of he language you use to talk to yourself. Have you ever said to yourself, or somebody else, “I’ll just see how I feel on the day and see what happens”? If you have, you’ve pretty much set yourself up to handle disappointment and have given yourself permission to fail. The language you use is so important. Frame everything in a positive manner, so rather than, “I hope I don’t fail”, try instead: “I have put all the necessary training in, and will give this race the best I can”
Start a race with a positive mindset: Do not give yourself permission to fail, because later on, your legs will remind your brain that you said it was ok to give up, and you will beat yourself up about it. Talk to yourself in the same way you would talk to a friend worrying about the marathon. You would never tell somebody they weren’t good enough, so make sure your inner voice is kind to you, because it dictates that movie we play for ourselves about how we want our race performance to look. Make sure it’s worthy of the big screen.
Name your emotions: you’ll have a lot of feelings pre-marathon, but remember that excitement feels the same as nervousness, so instead of worrying that you are panicking as that adrenaline courses through your body, reframe it as excited butterflies in your tummy. Keep it positive.
Make your own movie in your mind: Visualisation is an important point here – make sure you’re not just visualising the finish line. Visualise how the entire race will be, and more importantly how you intend to perform throughout it. A race is about the process, not the end goal, so by visualising how you want your race to go, and how you will feel during it, you will be more relaxed come race day. It’s important to connect a goal to a positive emotion, so that it becomes more meaningful to you. Visualise also how you might react if something unexpected did happen too, such as overcrowding, or if you trip up, and visualise how you would deal with them too, so you are prepared come race day should anything happen.
Get comfortable with the uncomfortable: Spend some time during training helping your mind as well as your body to deal with pain. The more you practice that uncomfortable feeling during training, the more you will get used to it, and be prepared for it during races. This is what training is for; learning how your body reacts to different paces and distances. That session you hate the most? Do it more. Don’t be scared of experimenting on yourself during training; that’s the whole point of it.
The first 10k
It’s so easy, especially during a marathon, to set off at a comfortable pace, with the masses, at a pace that is going to be unsustainable for the duration of the race. The majority of people I see who fail to achieve their marathon goals, are due to them bouncing off the start-line in a Tigger-like fashion, and realising later on that they have burnt out. I’ll say this now, at the risk of stating the obvious: the marathon is an endurance event. Use your energy wisely. I heard somebody say this week that they think of the marathon as having two halves: the first 20 miles, and the last 6.2.
Use the first 10k to remind yourself to stick to your planned pace, to not get too overexcited, and to enjoy the support and take in the atmosphere while you are still able to enjoy it. And smile. Smiling eases the pressure and forces us to relax – remember you do this for fun. Just because it’s a race doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyable.
Set yourself small goals for throughout the race too. I like to mentally tick off the parkrun 5k distance as I’ve run them, but you might like to focus on the next mile marker, or tick off the kilometres, or find a spectator with a green hat, or a pink coat, whatever works for you.
Take the pressure off and enjoy yourself. You’re in the race now, you’ve put all the preparation in, and all you can do is trust in your training and enjoy yourself. I tell all my clients worrying about their marathons to relax, because the hard nit – the training – is done! It’s when our minds are relaxed that our bodies can perform to their best.
You’ve hopefully settled into your stride now and are feeling good, enjoying the race. Use this section to make sure your fuel and hydration levels are topped up.
20k – 30k
Use the half marathon point to mentally congratulate yourself. I like to start counting down the miles from here, because you’re getting ever closer to the finish. This is the point where it’s important to focus on your form, which will take your mind off the monotony of counting down miles, and will help you loosen up and run more efficiently.
Fatigue means we stop running as economically. Our shoulders often tense up, we stop lifting our knees as high, our pelvis tends to sit back as we loosen our core. A mental check in with your body and its form really helps. I always run through the following head to toe checklist:
Head – are you looking forwards, not at the ground? Imagine there’s a piece of string from the sky holding your head upright.
Shoulders – are they tense? Roll them backwards, and relax.
Arms – are they moving? Legs follow what your arms do, so pump them backwards and get some forward momentum going.
Hands – are they clenched into fists? This can cause tightness in your shoulders, so keep your hands nice and relaxed.
Hips – is your pelvis in a neutral position? It often sits back when you’re tired and this can cause back ache, which you’ll probably notice on longer runs. Tighten your core and realign your pelvis.
Knees – make sure you are lifting your knees as high as you can. This will help lengthen your stride and give you more power through your legs.
Feet – move them quickly. Concentrate on a faster cadence, which will be helped by moving your arms quicker. You may also find if your pelvis has sat back, you will probably be landing heavily on your heels. Readjust your pelvis into the neutral position and you’ll probably find it easier to run on your midfoot or toes again
Going through this checklist could really help to distract your mind and make your running more economical.
30k – 40k
For most, this is the hardest part of the race. Assuming you are adequately fuelled, and have put the training in, there is no reason why you need to slow down (unless you set off too fast, in which case go back to the beginning of this article and read that bit on pacing again) so this is a mental game now. Your legs will be telling your brain to stop, and you will be having an argument with yourself. Now’s the time to remind yourself of all those positive words and phrases you used pre-race.
Try to look around you too, rather than at the ground. It’s easy at this stage to internalise a lot, and we can kind of experience tunnel vision which means we focus on the pain we are feeling. Look around and really take in what you can see around you. Use everything you can think of to distract yourself from that internal chatter: counting (Paula Radcliffe famously used to count to 100 so she knew she had covered a mile); chat to somebody running next to you; think about somebody you are running this for; run that internal movie you practised of you performing strong; do some more mental checks on your running form and your breathing; a song in your head can be really powerful too, if you try to run to the beat of it.
Those who find themselves talking themselves out of PBs during this point of a race will probably find mantras useful, as they are designed to help convince your mind that you can do this. Mantras are about positively reframing your circumstances and helping you believe you can achieve your goals. And believing is, after all, achieving.
Choose a few really positive, and specific, mantras that come easily to you, before the race, for example:
I am a strong, efficient runner and I am finding this pace really easy.
I am relaxed and smiling because I am having fun.
Practice using these during training, say them to yourself in the mirror, then when you’re struggling during a race, you’ll find them really powerful.
The last push
“Less than a parkrun to go” is my mantra for this section of the race, because I can almost touch the finish line. Focus again on your running form here, as when we are fatigued, that when we forget to run tall and lift our knees. Remember to smile here, and enjoy the last section of your race. Hopefully with these tips, you can run that marathon successfully with your mind as well as your body.
Michelle Mortimer is a UKA licenced Coach in Running Fitness, with many years of experience coaching athletes from beginner level through to ultramarathons. Having founded a running club, and spent 8 years as chairman and coach there, she now works independently as an online coach helping people to train towards events. www.mileswithmichelle.co.uk
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