Are You Mentally Ready for a Marathon?
Running a marathon requires the right headspace. Learn how playing to your mental strengths (and weaknesses) can help you nail your next 26.2.
You know you’re an intense competitor, and everything you do, you do to win. You like to run and you’ve done your share of 5 and 10ks. Friends say you should try a marathon. So are you up for the mental challenge?
That’s right, mental. Because here’s the thing about the 26.2 mile race: Being in shape is the starting point, but to get to the finish line, you need strength—not just in your lungs and legs—but in your mind as well. It turns out, certain mental characteristics play a key role in determining a runner’s marathon success. Studies have found that persistence and fearlessness are common threads among endurance athletes. And a team of Swiss researchers recently identified introversion, a critical eye and emotional toughness as shared traits among competitive distance runners.
It’s not just possessing these qualities that can help you through a race, but how you employ them. “I try to get people to understand how their mindset affects them in different ways,” says Julie Vieselmeyer, Ph.D., a clinical sport psychologist in Seattle who works with high school, college and masters level athletes. “For example, perfectionism can be really helpful. That person’s going to be super detail-oriented, and they’re probably going to complete every workout with the specifics of pacing that you lay out for them. They’re going to pay attention to hydration and sleep, all those details that go into being an athlete. But if that perfectionism doesn’t have some flexibility? That might also be the athlete who doesn’t listen to aches, pains or injuries that are saying ‘Wow, you should really back off.’”
As an athlete, so much of what goes into training and performance is mental, and harnessing your natural inclinations is all a part of reaching your potential. “Marathon psychology is about using your strengths—and understanding your weaknesses—to make things work for you,” Vieselmeyer says.
Making the Mind-Body Connection
While persistence and mental toughness can be assets during the long grind of marathon training, they can also backfire if your mind and body aren’t working together. “I have seen very few situations where challenges are purely mental or purely physical,” Vieselmeyer says. “It’s always a combination.” In other words, if your hardheaded nature causes you to ignore the signs of an inflamed Achilles or banged-up knee, odds are you won’t need one rest day—you’ll need a week.
It can be tricky to tune into how you’re feeling, though, when smart technology takes over your workouts. “Wearable technology makes it easy for runners to get caught up in the data and forget about how they feel,” says Max Paquette, Ph.D., an associate professor in exercise science at the University of Memphis. To maximize performance gains, you need both the science and the intuitive sense of your body’s needs. Track your splits on your watch, but keep a runner’s log, too, of how you experienced the workout.
The risk of a totally data-centered approach is that you’re not training your mind and body to tune into pain, says Paquette. And while there’s a benefit to ignoring the hurt (you can push harder and longer before giving in) there’s a downside in not knowing where the red line is between manageable pain and physical implosion. Usually, that downside rears its ugly head around mile 20 of the marathon, when the wheels come off the bus.
Mastering Mental Training
Whether you tend to be more introverted or extroverted, or whether your mind leans toward laid back or high strung, one thing experts say every marathoner benefits from is developing optimism as part of their mental bag of tricks. Learning to find joy and positivity in the marathon experience will help you stick with it, even during the rough patches.
That sort of mindset is unlikely to pop up three hours into your race, however, unless you’ve practiced it in advance. Here’s how. Head out on a long run in the nastiest, windiest, rainiest weather you can find. Promise yourself you will hang in there for a set number of miles, no matter what. Leave your watch and music at home, and spend your energy looking at the road, the trees, the buildings, and the sky—anything you can find to distract yourself from the unpleasant conditions. Wherever your eyes settle, try to find something about that object that brings you joy. Maybe it’s the way the tree branches bow in the howling wind, or the way the skyscraper seems to shimmer in the rain. Yeah, it effing sucks outside, but those singsong birdcalls you’re hearing are a sure sign spring is just around the corner.
Then, think about your body and how strong you are to be outside running on a day when all the elements are against you. “Focusing on the positive builds motivation for the future,” Vieselmeyer says. “It helps you feel more in control when you can specifically identify positive elements on your run, and it also increases confidence.”
Putting the Pieces Together
Because mental traits are deeply engrained from an early age, changing your mindset isn’t easy and takes time. But just like you get out there and run day after day to improve your speed and endurance, so too can you work on building a stronger, more resilient personality. See that hill as your friend, not enemy, and run up it an extra time today. Ignore your watch and listen to your breathing: Deep, full breaths mean you’re confident and in control of your run. “Every time you put your shoes on, it is an opportunity to train your mind,” says Vieselmeyer. “If you utilize these tactics to the best of your ability, you’re going to be psychologically prepared to run a 5k, marathon or whatever distance you choose.”