It’s marathon season and the world-famous London race is just around the corner. Marathon performance is as much about controlling your mind as it is summoning the physical strength and endurance to run 26.2 miles. But running the race you hoped and trained for requires a more tactical approach than grit and determination alone.
In fact, there are a number of psychological practices you can prepare and perfect before the race has even begun. Hannah Winter is a Sport and Exercise Psychology Consultant, who reveals to RSNG exactly what it takes to win the battle with your mind and master the marathon.
Focus On The ‘What-Ifs’
Marathon training is a long, hard road where injury, illness and other destabilising factors mean things rarely go completely to plan. And just as training can’t be expected to be hiccup-free, race day itself should be approached with an arsenal of solutions to worst-case scenarios.
‘One of the biggest mistakes people make is only preparing for their best race’
‘One of the biggest mistakes people make is only preparing for their best race,’ explains Winter. ‘But being confident on race day means being fully prepared, and being fully prepared means expecting the unexpected. One way to do this is to create “If-then” plans. The “If” part reflects a potential obstacle or challenge you might face; the “then” part indicates what action you will take in response to the obstacle.’
‘To do this, write down all the potential challenges you could face on race day. An example could be: “If there is unexpected hot weather on race day…” or “If I hit a wall earlier than expected…” After this, next to each “If” write down what you will “then” do. For example, “then I will drink X amount of extra water,” or “then I will focus on just reaching the next water station.” Creating these plans can help you realise what elements in your race are in your control, and how you can choose to respond if faced with setbacks or challenges.’
Get Up For The Challenge
Even if you’re a veteran marathon runner, the start of a race is an invariably nervy time. But nerves are no bad thing if you can use that energy efficiently. ‘There is a distinction between people who turn up to a race nervous, but perform well, and those who are nervous and don’t perform well,’ explains Winter. ‘This distinction has been conceptualised as being in either a “challenge” or a “threat” state.’
‘Physiologically, a challenge and threat state are very different. In a challenge state, energy is delivered efficiently around the body, enabling better concentration, decision-making and physical movement. In a threat state, energy is delivered less efficiently around the body, negatively impacting concentration, thoughts, emotions, decision-making and physical ability.’
To get into a challenge state for a marathon, you need to increase self-confidence and control. ‘To be more self-confident,’ says Winter, ‘you need to think confidently.’ But that begins well before you’re lining up at the start. ‘In training, listen to your thoughts about your performance and ability, and ask yourself whether you are thinking confidently. One way to build your self-confidence is to become clear on your strengths.’
‘To help with this, after each training session write down two things that you did well and what you did to make those positives happen,’ she says. You might, for example, have finished your run feeling strong and running at a quicker pace than you started – how did you manage that? Did you take a gel halfway into your run? Or maybe you set off at a sensible pace. Whatever you did to enact that positive action, note it down so you can clearly see the good decisions you’ve made in training.
Focus On The Controllables
To increase your sense of control over the race, it’s necessary to realise there will be aspects of the race – temperature, congestion, niggles that come and go – that are beyond your grasp. But once you accept that, it’s time to focus on the aspects that you can control. ‘Focussing on the controllables can help facilitate a sense of belief that the desired performance is achievable,’ says Winter – controllables being factors such as effort and consistency in training. ‘This prevents attention being directed towards irrational, illogical and unhelpful thoughts. Having a sense of control over our performance helps direct mental energy and resources to what matters.’
Remember Your Training
Once you’re off and running, the first few miles are likely to fly by as adrenaline and the sea of runners carries you through. Take care, however, not to set off too quickly – many a marathon has been derailed in the first 10k simply because of overexcitement. Once you settle into a rhythm, your training should get you to at least the 13-mile mark before legs and lungs begin to feel the strain, and it’s at this point the mind games truly begin.
‘If you start to have doubts about your ability to finish then remind yourself of the training you have done’
‘If you start to have doubts about your ability to complete the race,’ advises Winter, ‘remind yourself of the training you have done. Most people will have followed a training plan, therefore if you have thoughts like, “I can’t do this”, or, “I need to slow down”, remember that you’ve done the training and you are executing your race plan as intended. Reassure yourself that all the evidence is there, and you are capable of doing it.’
Segment Your Thoughts
Fast-forward a few miles, and if you’ve made it around the 18-mile mark, but the voice of self-doubt is becoming louder with each step, Winter’s strategy is to break your thoughts into segments, and repeat those thoughts on a loop. ‘The segments should be short enough so you can totally concentrate on what needs to be thought of in that period,’ she says. ‘Divide your thoughts into three types: task-relevant, mood words, and positive self-statements.’
‘Task-relevant thoughts involve focusing attention on your technique or a running-relevant cue.’ Examples include focusing on your breathing, posture, pacing or the way your feet are striking the ground. Winter’s advice is to do this for 60 seconds, before moving onto mood words: ‘These are words that emote or energise you,’ she explains. ‘They should cause a physical reaction in the body. Mood words increase the effectiveness of thinking, for example if you want to run with power, thinking of words that make you feel powerful can increase the actions of power. Examples include ‘Boom,’ ‘Woosh’ or ‘Push’. Do this for 20 seconds.’
Next up, Winter recommends positive self-statements. These, she explains ‘are linked to having a positive mental orientation, which is associated with improved performance, coping and self-confidence.’ Examples could include: ‘You’re doing great,’ or, ‘You’ve trained well, and you’re executing your plan brilliantly.’ Do these for 10 seconds, then repeat all three processes. The result, hopefully, will be a renewed sense of confidence and an end-of-race kick to see you over the line.
WHAT NEXT? Watch this Tedx Talk on how you can improve your endurance with the ‘Power of Now’.