Mentally preparing for a marathon

Mentally Preparing for a Marathon

This is something of a follow-on piece from my last blog post, about how I didn’t get my mental game right for my last marathon. This made me think about what we could/should do to mentally train as well as physically.  I genuinely have no regrets about that race now. Maybe I needed to have that one really bad race to learn from that experience, and in my future as a coach I think it will be an invaluable lesson. Sometimes things go wrong and there’s nothing you can do about it. But you can put some strategies in place to fend off your mental game ruining your race completely. So here’s my take on some things you CAN do to prepare yourself for that mental battle. 

I’m kind of dedicating this to three of my friends who are going to do Milton Keynes marathon in a couple of weeks. For two, Sean and Helen, this is their first marathon (I suspect not their last; they are both awesome runners) and Geraldine, whom you may remember as little G whom I trained and partially ran the first Brighton with. She is an AMAZING person and got through that marathon even though she collapsed vomiting from over-hydration and some poor naïve paramedics tried to get her into an ambulance. She was having none of it and completed that flipping marathon. Now Geraldine is one of the runners I admire more than anyone. She’s not fast – neither of us are – but she’s got more grit and guts than most people I know. She doesn’t even know it either; she’s forever putting herself down, and I have to threaten to slap her quite a lot (I never actually have slapped her, I’m not that mean). Helen is the same way – she doesn’t know how strong and awesome she is – and Sean is super calm and laid back. I find him very calming to run with, nothing seems to faze him at all. He just came along and joined us on the training runs to see what he could do, and when it turned out he could fairly easily do a 20 miler, he signed up for the actual marathon. Just like that. Terrible barn- dance partner, though. Doesn’t know his left from his right. 

So this is for you guys, and hopefully will help you not to make some of the same mistakes I did!  

Control the things you can control – take away any unnecessary uncertainties. There’s a lot of stuff you can’t control, which may be worrying you. So make sure everything that is within your control is sorted. All the stuff like trying out your kit, etc, on the long runs, from your nutrition to your bra (not you, Sean), so that you don’t have an additional worry that that new gel you haven’t actually tried is going to turn your stomach at mile 5. Replicate everything you can for the final few long runs, and really try not to worry about the things you can’t control. But do try and think about your strategies for different circumstances (weather, for example).

Positive visualisation – This is such a big one, and one that prior to actually DOING that first marathon I may have been a little sniffy about. Picture yourself crossing the finish line. But not just the finish line – practice in your head finishing strong and all those other bits of the race that will get you to that point where you are crossing that line and posing for your finisher pic (not looking at your watch, or y’know, with ugly crying face. Not that I’ve done both of those things… ahem. Totally have.).  There’s a school of thought that says that when you visualise doing something it sends the same signals to your body as actually doing it – so that if you picture yourself running strong, finishing that marathon, your body will be primed to do it. 

Also think about positive ways in which you might be able to get through the harder bits. This is important. It won’t all go perfectly – there will be darker moments, there will be points at which your brain starts to tell you that you can’t do it, or it feels overwhelming. So picture yourself encountering some of things that might go wrong and overcoming them, whatever your fears are – a mid-race portaloo stop, a shoelace coming undone, or fumbling a drink. Mo had a tiny bit of a problem at the drinks stations at the infamous HOTTER THAN THE ACTUAL SUN London marathon, and still smashed it. 

Mantras: This is also a little cheesy, but it absolutely works. Think of some mantras that will get you through the darker moments. I have a bracelet from my husband that says ‘You got this, girl’ on it (from running bling – link), and for the first marathon I had my lucky buff that I wore on the other wrist (it was hot, so I poured water over it and used it to cool myself down: double whammy) and because I’d worn it a lot on the long training runs it reminded me of my training buddies who believed in me and how hard I’d worked in order to get here. One of my mantras is ‘trust the training’ because if you’ve done the training you can complete the race. Or ‘marathons are tough, but you are tougher’. Some people write things on their hands or on their water bottle, or even little messages stuck to your gels…

Another way to push the darker thoughts out is to have a song you repeat in your head. One of those training buddies uses the song from Trolls (Get back up again), which not only has empowering lyrics but reminds her of her family which gives her strength.  

“I'm not giving up today
There's nothing getting in my way
And if you knock knock me over
I will get back up again, oh
If something goes a little wrong
Well you can go ahead and bring it on
'Cause if you knock knock me over, I will get back up again”

No weasel words! Weasel words are things like ‘Might cross the line’ and ‘If I finish the marathon’. Don’t do it to yourself. Positivity is KEY. This is one thing I really didn’t do at Brighton. The first year I did, one of my mantras was ‘Only positive thoughts’. When negativity started to creep in that first year, I consciously pushed it out and replaced it with positive thoughts. This year, WOW, I wallowed in it. I let the dark thoughts wash over me. As discussed in the previous blog, I did a total character assassination on myself. Not just my inability to complete a marathon, but every shitty thing I’ve ever done or thought! SO, what do I learn from this? You need to be prepared for the bad thoughts to come, and have an actual ARSENAL of positivity to blast it out of the old brain. Love bomb yourself. You are a strong and powerful woman (or man, whatevs) and you WILL complete this marathon in a strong and powerful fashion! 

Reflective space and ritual: Quiet time before the race, or night before. This one doesn’t always happen, I guess. If you’re away from home, sharing a room or whatever, it might be harder to find some quiet time to get your head together and calm down. For me this is the final check of my kit, pinning my race number to my club vest, etc. I use that time to A) make sure I’ve got everything I need and B) the ritual calms me because I’ve done it the night before every race I’ve ever done.

Have an A plan, but also have a B, C and maybe even a D plan! If the A plan doesn’t happen, don’t catastrophise, just move to plan B… My A plan was to get a PB of 5 minutes and come in under 4 and half hours.  When it became apparent to me that this wasn’t going to happen, quite early on in the race – by about mile 8, in fact – initially I totally catastrophised. I got into my own head and actually had thoughts like ‘Well, this is all over now, I might as well give up’ and thought about how I would even do that: ‘turn myself in’ to a martial or what? But then I caught myself on, and thought, no, I just move to plan B, which was to beat my previous PB of 4:36, and then I had to move on to plan C, which was to beat my previous Brighton Marathon time of 4:54, and then it was to get in under 5 hours… and then it became about just crossing that finish line. But one thing I’m proud of was that I finished strong. My last mile was one of my fastest, and I actually enjoyed the last few miles, because that part of my positive visualisation was still intact, and my D plan to cross that line and get that medal was never really in doubt for me. 

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