I want to talk about the role of the mind. Marathon training is so tough physically but it is also a huge mental effort. I’d like to discuss some of the mental sides to training and running a marathon and the approaches that I often use to help me out.
Getting out of the door
Sometimes getting out of the door can be really difficult during training. You have a plan. You are doing your best to follow it but you are struggling to find the motivation to go out. There can be many reasons for this. It may be that you are exhausted from a day’s work. Or you feel fatigued from the increased volume of training. It can often be the anxiety associated with a tough session or long run that is putting you off. I have been through this many times, and on plenty of occasions I have found my excuses and stayed in the comfort of my home with a cup of tea. However, I don’t feel any better for skipping the run; I actually feel worse. I start to feel guilty and then I worry. So, I use an approach which I have found works for me. It is a three-pronged approach. I start by deciding that I will only run for 10 minutes no matter what was on the plan. I will run 5 minutes away from the house and if I am not enjoying myself or I don’t feel good, I will run the 5 minutes back. This takes the pressure off. It proves to myself that I am not making excuses and I am giving it a go. I am allowing myself to go out and listen to my body rather than my head. I will see if I am actually exhausted or if I start to enjoy the run after 5 minutes.
After the pressure of the run has been removed I still need to get out of the door and stop over-thinking or procrastinating. This is where I stop whatever I am doing, get my kit on, and walk out of the door. I try and completely remove my head from this process. I go into an automated mode. Get out of that door and slam it shut. Once you are outside it gets easier.
The third step is to make a judgement after 5 minutes whether you are going to turn back for home or continue. I nearly always find that I start to feel better and decide to go a bit further. At this stage I can decide whether to do the original run planned or if I will replace it with something else. Now I’m out though, I have removed any guilt from not even trying and I am doing the most important thing required for your training, staying consistent.
You may have, or may not have heard the term maranoia. It refers to the constant stress and worry that many runners experience during the marathon taper. As you reduce your training volume in order to freshen up for the big day, you may find that you start to feel awful. You start to think you are getting ill. Niggles which were not present before start to arise. You feel unfit. You worry that you won’t be able to run a marathon. You may worry that the goal pace you have set you is too ambitious. You start to feel like you are gaining weight.
In short, your head starts playing unwanted games with you. I have been struck down by maranoia on plenty of occasions but I try to embrace it now. I don’t need to listen to all of this ‘fake news’ that my deceitful mind likes to bombard me with. I have run enough marathons to know that it is just not true. I will still get stressed and worried about the big day but I try to harness these nerves as a positive. I tell myself that the more nervous I get, the more adrenalin I will have on race day which will help me run. If you have ever felt a rush of adrenalin, you will know that it makes running feel easier. You can run at a faster pace for the same perceived effort as a slower one. I see this as one of the big reasons that I always perform better on race day than in training no matter what the distance. So, as I get closer to the race I accept all of the worry as a positive thing, and get excited to utilise it on the morning of the marathon.
Even if that approach doesn’t work for you, try to remember that maranoia isn’t real. It’s the Father Christmas of the marathon; or perhaps I should say the Grinch. But fear not the taper maranoia is not trying to steal away your marathon from you.
Personally, I find I need to be ready mentally for race day. I need to have mantras. I need to know why I am doing the race. I need to be positive.
I shut out negativity. If you’re a negative voice, then I am either avoiding you or shutting out what you are saying. I start to build positivity into my mindset. I visualise how each part of the race will go. I live the marathon many times before the actual day. On an easy run, I will imagine I am running in the marathon. It feels good, I am trying to control my pace. Don’t run too fast. Not yet. I visualise how I will feel when I can see the final mile marker. The relief that will overwhelm me when I catch sight of the finish line up ahead. Living the race in my head helps me prepare and gets me ready for what I have to do.
I need more than just visualisation though. I need to know why. When times get tough in the race; which they inevitably will; I need to know what is making me run this marathon. What is my why? This is where I go old-school and grab some pen and paper. I write down my reasons for running. I prepare what I am going to think about when it gets hard. Don’t leave your head to decide these things when you are 22 miles into a marathon and everything feels difficult. When you are fatigued and your blood sugar is low, your head will not be in the optimum place to start thinking of your why. You will start to give up if you don’t already have your reason for running or a great mantra ready to help you through.
For my first marathon I wrote down something important in my life for every mile of the race. I was running each mile for that important person or thing in my life. It really helped give meaning to each mile. I ordered my reasons so the early miles were less important when I knew I would be fresh. As I got to the end, the most important things in my life spurred me on. I didn’t want to let that aspect of my life down by giving up.
Another pen and paper approach I use it to write down my sessions and runs. On a scrap piece of paper, I will write down the run I did and a few comments. So, it may be how I got out in the wet and windy weather on a Thursday night. Or how I did really well on a long run. I ‘bank’ these scraps of paper and read through them the day before the race. They prove to me what I have been through. Everything I have put into the race. They make me feel strong. They override the maranoia and start to get me in a positive mindset. I only ever write a positive comment on the scraps of paper. There is always a positive from every run. I actually put these scraps of paper in a piggy bank which I had to smash open, but a box or a bag works just as well. When I read through all of these ‘banked’ runs I adopt the mindset that it is time to withdraw from the bank and deliver.
The final thing which I find really helpful is when you are actually running in the race to forget that it’s a marathon and to break it down into smaller chunks. When your head thinks about 25 more miles it can get overwhelmed. Break it down. One more mile. Focus on getting to the next mile marker and then go again. It may seem like such a simple thing to say but it really works. I have convinced myself I am going to drop out before but played the ‘one more mile’ game and somehow got to the finish. Your body achieves what your mind believes.