Mental tips and strategies for marathon runners

Dr Carla Meijen, Lecturer in Sport Psychology at the University of Kent, has introduced the first psyching team – a team who offer help and support with practical mental strategies before, during and after long distance running events, to the UK.  As a number of spring marathons are fast approaching, I decided to share some of the mental tips and strategies for runners developed by Dr Meijen and her colleagues.

By following the advice of Dr Meijen and her colleagues, runners can use simple techniques to prepare for mental demands such as worries about coping with the pain and discomfort of running a marathon, or about sticking to their race plan. These techniques are split into mental strategies for before the day of the marathon, during the marathon itself and after the marathon.

Before the day of the marathon:

  • Have multiple goals and try not to rely on just one time-based goal. Many runners have a time-based goal in mind; it can be helpful to expand on this and have some flexibility in your goals. One approach is to set different levels of goals, for example setting a dream goal, for when race day conditions are perfect. Next, set a goal you would still be happy with when conditions are less than perfect. I did this before the Great Birmingham Run. Finally, identify a goal that would be the bare minimum if things don’t go to plan. Having three different goals can help you avoid disappointment during the marathon if your dream goal is hard to achieve on the day of the race.
  • Break the race down. Consider splitting the race into different parts. The marathon distance can seem daunting and those 26.2 miles can seem a long way away. Dr Meijen recommends thinking about the marathon as having three different parts and having goals for each part. You can consider using the first 8-10 miles to take in the atmosphere and to get comfortable with your pace. The next 8-10 miles are about trying to intensify the effort. During the final 6 miles you should be totally focused, monitor how you are feeling and if things are going to plan go for a full-out effort to the finish.

Just a parkrun to go[Source]

  • Prepare in order to reduce worries on the day. One of my favourite quotes is “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail”, this is true for the marathon. As a first-time marathon runner you may feel concerned about what to expect on the day of the race with so many other runners around. There will always be factors out of your control – for example the mini heat wave during the 2007 London Marathon – but you can prepare for those you can control. Do the necessary preparation beforehand and study the course. How will you get to the start? Where are the water stations? Where are the portaloos? Make a check list to make sure you’ve got everything you need. It’s also important to practice your pre-race and race day fuelling strategies on a longer training run before the marathon.

During the marathon:

  • Run your own race. After three marathons I’m yet to run my own race, the atmosphere at large marathons is inspiring, almost too inspiring! It’s easy to get carried away at large events with the crowds cheering; with so many other runners there is a risk of starting at a much faster pace than normal and being worn out early on. Focus on your own race – at larger events there will be different pace groups – follow the one that is closest to your personal time-based goal.

London Marathon[Source]

  • Recall successful training runs. You should trust your training and if you are struggling during the race, recall all your successful training runs to remember your own ability. Use these positive experiences to give confidence that it can be done. You can recall what helped you through those challenging longer training runs; it may have been an inspiring song or the reason you have for actually running the marathon.
  • Have a mantra. Having a mantra can be really helpful, so choose one that worked for you during your training runs and use that during the race. Some runners write their mantra on their hand as a reminder. Unfortunately, my personal running mantra isn’t publishable, sorry.
  • Focus. Inevitably there will be a time during the marathon when your body starts to feel tired and sore. You might find it helpful to distract yourself when this happens by focusing on the sights or by replaying a song in your mind. Some runners prefer to focus on how their body feels and use breathing as a strategy to remain focused. Marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe used to count to 100 three times in her head and knew that was roughly a mile.  Use whichever approach feels most comfortable for you.

After the marathon:

  • Reward yourself. After the marathon you may experience some post-marathon blues. Ideally, there should be a reward for your achievement – in my case a huge Mc Donald’s immediately after the last year’s London Marathon. You should also take time to reflect on what you’ve achieved.  I was so disappointed with my performance I didn’t do this and regretted it afterwards.

dscf1283

  • Start planning for next time. Finally, it’s back to planning and thinking about setting a new goal to work towards. Your new goal might to run another marathon or something totally different.

I really hope you found this post interesting. If you’re running a spring marathon then good luck! I’m more than a little bit jealous.

Do you have a running mantra? I quite like Paula Radcliffe’s ‘no limits’ mantra.

How do you keep going when the going gets tough? I’m rubbish and tend to walk as soon as I start to struggle.

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4 thoughts on “Mental tips and strategies for marathon runners

  1. AnnaTheApple says:

    Such good tips here. I remember hearing advice from a sports psychologist and she said very similar things. She also said with her athletes she hopes something goes wrong in training, or a training race, so that they can learn how to deal with it so if it was to happen on actual race day then they know they can cope. Very sensible. I think knowing you can’t control everything helps – so having the multiple goals is a good move.

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  2. Jenny says:

    Good article. I count or double numbers! after I saw an interview with Paula – its a great distraction. Would love to know what people’s goals are. Mantra “Just one more step”

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  3. Maria @runningcupcake says:

    Some great tips. I like to count in my head when things get tough- it somehow distracts me enough to keep going. Although I do sometimes stop and walk if I don’t care about a finish time as I just think that I want to enjoy it and not struggle.
    I like to say “run steady, finish strong” on my longer races. It can be in time with breathing and steps which helps too I find.

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