Mental Toughness Tips for Marathon Runners

In July 2008 the phone rang and when I answered it I was greeted with a big hello from a guy I had never met before. He introduced himself as Simon Baker and said “I hear you like working with people who have big challenges”. He was right, I had just come back from the toughest bike race in the world, The Race Across America. 6 months earlier I had put a team of leisure cyclists together to prove we could not only get them to finish this brutal race but also break the Irish record. We did!

He proceeded to tell me he had a big goal and needed to be ready mentally for it. “I want to break the world record in the marathon!” he said. “Oh, that’s pretty big. You do realise what the world record in the marathon is” I asked. “Yes” he replied “but I want to set the world record on crutches!

Whether you are completing your first marathon or looking to break 3hours or aiming to break the world record on crutches it is going to be a test of physical and mental toughness.

Here are my 5 top ways to prepare mentally for the challenge:

Set your routine

Routines are a great way of getting you in the right frame of mind on race day. Routines can help you stay focused on what you can control. A simple routine can be set up the night before your event. Having a list and packing your race bag in a certain way allows you to destress because you know everything is set.

A race day routine may include what time you have breakfast and what you will eat. How long before your race will you arrive? How soon before the race will you eat and what will it be? Are you going to do a specific warm up or use a specific stretching routine?

A couple of things to note about routines. They should be consistently done at events and they should be practiced in training to create an association. Only then will the routine create the same feeling on the day of the race. Relaxed, calm and ready.

It’s all about the process, not the outcome 

Successful athletes don’t focus on winning, they focus on performance. When you are running in the marathon you should have your goal in mind. Whether your looking to finish within a certain time or you just cross the finish line, this is your own personal goal and the best way to achieve it is focus on what you are in control of. Stay in the moment.

Focus on your rhythm, on how your body is moving and on your breathing. When you become absorbed in a rhythm you will find yourself reaching into the zone, just going with the flow. The zone only happens when we are in a present state and not thinking too far ahead.

Think signpost not finish line

Many people reach the first mile marker and suddenly think “Oh my God, I have only finished a mile. I have so far to go” but that doesn’t really help. Instead of thinking that you have 25 miles to do or that the finish line is so far away focus on smaller goals. Think of the next mile marker.

Sometimes even thinking about reaching the next mile marker can feel like a big goal so break it down again. Aim to get to the next signpost and keep doing this over and over until you reach your ultimate goal – the finish line. Remember – if you are moving forward you will finish.

Visualise the race – both the good and the bad parts!

Every athlete I work with gets a personalised Mp3 recording that I record live at the end of our mental training session. All the science experiments show us how powerful visualisation and mental rehearsal is for better performance. We know that using visualisation has a direct impact on how the body feels. Because the nervous system can’t tell the difference between something that is vividly imaged and reality, we fire up the same neurons in our brain as when we are physically doing it.

So, what should we visualise? Many people practice visualisation by seeing themselves crossing the finish line, which is good but a far better type of visualisation exercise is mentally rehearsing all the performance goals and processes you have been training for. Imagine yourself running with the calm relaxed rhythm you have practiced. Feeling the ease at which you are running with those relaxed shoulders and light feet.

Now, add some difficult situations into your visualisation. Running the marathon is going to throw up some tough times and you want your mind to be ready. Visualise how you will overcome the toughest times. Imagine yourself focusing on your breathing and listen to the crowd in your mind as you imagine you are drawing energy from their enthusiasm.

Train your inner voice to work for you and not against you

What we say to ourselves has a direct impact on how we feel. I always say to clients that if we verbally abused others in the same way that we sometimes abuse ourselves we would have no friends. We can be very good at being negative to ourselves. For example:

“I’m no good at hills and this course is full of them”

“I’m not going to make it”

“I hope I don’t hit the wall”

“I hope I don’t go to fast/slow at the start”

Instead tell yourself how you want to be:

“I am going to feel confident, relaxed, and just go with the flow”

Instead of your inner voice saying, “I am nervous” change it to “I am excited”. Believe it or not, the same physiological signals, like increased heart rate or butterflies in the tummy is the same for both. So if you call it excitement, then the butterflies and increased heartrate becomes a positive thing because it’s giving you energy and a feeling of readiness for the race.

You can also use your inner voice to begin to distract you from how your body is feeling. Think of your favourite motivation song and hum it to yourself. Run to the beat. You could distract your inner voice by counting your steps. Count to nine and start over. I have many clients who told me that this one inner voice technique was enough to get them over the toughest parts of the course.

These are just some of the techniques I use with my marathon runners and yes, they were all used by Simon Baker who smashed the world record by 26 minutes when he finished the Dublin City Marathon in 6 hours and 47minutes. Link to his achievement is here

One last thing to remember

If the worst happens on race day and you have to stop for some reason, its going to feel awful at the time. Thats natural, but as soon as you can begin to focus on what you have achieved. Then begin to plan your next one with the changes you might make based on what you learned in this one. Because thats what events are – learning experiences. In my experience my biggest fails have been where I learned most.

to get the most out of you marathon experience, whether you smashed your record or didn’t make it this time, ask yourself these questions:

What did you learn in this race?

What would you do differently?

Now, go and ENJOY the day! Look around and absorb the atmosphere.