Of all the distance running events, the marathon presents the greatest challenges both physically and mentally. Even after completing all the required training and making it to the race site rested and healthy, arriving at the starting line in less than the ideal state of mind can have a devastating effect on your performance. In this section, a variety of mental strategies will be discussed that will enable you to set realistic goals, complete the necessary training (in particular, the long runs), and be optimally prepared mentally for the challenges that await you in completing the marathon. Please be familiar with the following terminology (described with positive outcomes), as each will be mentioned later in this section:
Before You Begin
- Mental Rehearsal/Visualization - The process of creating pictures or images in your mind.
- Imagery - Playing out/imagining in your mind the way you wish for an event to occur.
- Self-Talk - The "voice" in your head that can be trained to provide positive affirmations during adversity and tough times.
There are certain "prerequisites" or internal characteristic that a runner must possess in order to undertake the necessary training that the marathon requires. These include motivation, self-discipline, and effective time-management, all of which are inter-related characteristics.
A coach can be enthusiastic about the training program he or she designs/presents and show interest in the runner's development; however, motivation and self-discipline must be developed primarily from within. The best marathon training program in the world will not enable a runner to make it to the finish line of a marathon if he or she isn't internally motivated to undergo and complete the training and then finish the race.
Similarly, it requires a great deal of self-discipline to complete the long training runs while at the same time, cope with other daily distractions and manage all the personal responsibilities daily living provides. This is why it is crucial that the runner who wishes to train for the marathon be an effective manager of time. It is beyond the scope of this web site to discuss in detail strategies to enhance one's motivation, self-discipline, and time management strategies. There are a wealth of resources available featuring information relating to both these topics and sports psychology.
Short and Long Term Goal Setting
General Goal Setting Considerations
For most first time marathoners, goal setting is simple… To finish the race! Nevertheless, regardless of your experience level and race aspirations, it is best to be as specific as possible when setting goals. Be sure to write the goals down, perhaps tell others about your goals, and set a time frame for achieving the goals. These strategies will enhance the possibility of achieving both your short-term objectives as well as your big goal.
There are two basic types of goals: Process goals and outcome goals. It is important to set short-term objectives (process goals) on your way to achieving the big goal (outcome goal). The definitions and examples of process and outcome goals are listed below:
Marathon Goal Setting Considerations
- Process Goals - These types of goals involve activities that focus on mastering the task and increasing one's skill level (e.g., the knowledge and training needed to complete a marathon). Examples of process goals include: Following the training schedule as closely as possible; Improving your nutrition; Reading as much as you can about the marathon; Consulting with your coach on a regular basis; Getting more sleep to be as rested as possible, etc.
- Outcome Goals - These goals relate to the finished product or stated differently, goals you hope to accomplish in the marathon. Examples include: Breaking 4 hours in the marathon; Running the second half of the marathon faster than the first 13.1 miles; Defeating a rival; Running a personal best in the marathon.
In the couple of weeks prior to the marathon, think about three (outcome) goals you'd be interested in accomplishing for your marathon: (1) an easily obtainable goal, (2) a realistic yet moderately challenging goal, and (3) an ultimate goal. Determine a strategy to achieve the ultimate goal, but build into your plan flexibility to aim for less ambitious goals if things don't pan out the way you had planned. Above all, be realistic. For example, if you don't possess the genetic predisposition (natural ability) to run a sub-38 minute 10K, there's very little chance you can break three hours in the marathon, no matter how positive an attitude you possess!
Strategies for Completing the Training
Examples of Mental Strategies During Your Training
- Find a coach with the reputation for being both enthusiastic and positive. These traits can help inspire and motivate you.
- Join a group or team whose members share your same goals. These individuals can provide you with the needed emotional support to succeed. Groups or a training partner can help make completing the long runs easier than doing these alone. It is essential to find training partners who run your approximate pace so that your workouts do not turn into races.
- When doing your long runs, break the course into sections mentally. That is, mentally run from one landmark to the next instead of thinking of completing the entire 20-mile training course. When you reach the first landmark, then mentally think of running to the next and so forth.
- Realize that the training will not always be easy. If running a marathon were simple, there would be no challenge as everyone would be able to do it. To enable you to cope with the physical and mental demands of completing the long training runs and the actual marathon when the going gets tough, there are several mental strategies you can utilize. These strategies and examples are listed in the next section.
Think and say to yourself…
- "If this was easy, then everybody could complete a marathon."
- "Keep running . . . Maybe I'll feel better when I have some Gatorade."
- "If I quit now, I'll be very disappointed in myself later this afternoon."
- "I'm not really physically tired; I'm more fatigued mentally."
- "Completing this important training run will give me confidence and enable me to finish the marathon comfortably."
- "In just one more hour this run will be finished and I'll be in at home...showering, relaxing, eating, etc."
Visualization/Mental Rehearsal Strategies
- Imagine that you are a world-class runner and are in the lead of the Boston or Olympic Marathon.
- Imagine that your running form is smooth and graceful.
- Imagine that your a running effortlessly and very relaxed.
Psychological Issues Before, During, and After the Marathon
- Picture yourself running every mile of the marathon for which you are training.
- Visualize what the finish line area will look like (e.g., with the clock displaying the time you're shooting for).
- See in your "mind's-eye" the spectators who will be cheering for you.
- Think of all your friends back at home who will be thinking about you and pulling for you while you'll be running.
Please refer to the following sections of this site for further information pertaining to mental strategies/considerations during these specific periods of time.
For a comprehensive review of a related topic, read Goal Setting Considerations from our archived articles section.
Check out the following book co-authored by Jerry Lynch and Warren Scott for great information about sports psychology as it applies to running: Running Within: A Guide to Mastering the Body-Mind-Spirit Connection for Ultimate Training and Racing