How To Develop Mental Toughness For A Marathon

Greenletes / Running / How To Develop Mental Toughness For A Marathon

Last updated on July 12th, 2021 at 06:29 am

How runners can develop mental toughness and strength for a marathon. These 8 expert-approved tips will help you build confidence on your way to 26.2.

Mental toughness can often feel like something you’re born with or you’re not. In reality, keeping your cool during a marathon requires practicing mental toughness regularly. And it is a skill.

It can be learned like anything else. Not to mention that mental toughness can make or break your race day or any given training day. This article has 8 tips to help you build and practice mental toughness training for marathon running, so your mind doesn’t hold you back on race day.

1. Know that you are not alone

Whether it’s your first marathon or your 100th marathon, everyone gets nervous. This is natural when you put a lot of time and effort into something, and you want it to go well. Take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone here, and know that what you are feeling is universal.

2. Create a practice routine for your big day

Routine can be your best friend leading up to the race, particularly the week before and the morning of the race. Early in your training, create a warm-up routine, or a set way to get rid of excess nervous energy. For example, do light activity, such as jumping jacks, high knees, butt kicks and downward dog.

Practice these light activities in the weeks and months leading up to the race, so that you can take comfort in those routines during race week. Do this on race morning to send a signal to your body that this is just like any other training day. This will also ensure that you implement a proper warm-up no matter the conditions.

3. Manage your race day expectations

Simply put, marathons are long. Manage your expectations accordingly, and set different goals for yourself. Have one A-level goal – the goal you are aiming for if absolutely nothing goes wrong. Maybe this is a certain time goal or running negative splits.

Next, have a B-level goal that is still doable if your shoe comes untied at one point, or you forget to fill your water at an aid station.

And finally, have a C-level goal in mind if larger issues occur, like cramps, pacing errors, things of that sort.

Note that in each scenario, your result should still be one you’re proud of if you achieve that goal.  Having these different goals should calm you down a little, because they remind you that you’ve got a “game plan” no matter what happens, and you’ve already made peace with the different possible results.

4. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself

Marathons often feel overwhelming because physically training for and recovering from a marathon takes time. As a result, it can feel like you put all of your training eggs in only one basket for the year, depending on how many marathons you run.

If the race does not go as planned, you may feel like you wasted one of your few chances with marathon running. But your race-day result should not take away from all the hard work you put in to get to this day.

Even if the race does not go perfectly, chances are you already reaped the benefits from your training, regardless of the race-day performance. Don’t let anything take that away from you!

And remember—since you’ll be running so much during the training phase, you can sign up for races as part of your training. Those races still count–don’t forget that!

5. Avoid the comparison trap

Social media makes it really easy to compare yourself to other runners. If you didn’t run as quickly as you hoped on race day, or if someone else ran faster than you did, it’s easy to fixate on those facts instead of moving on.

To combat this, unplug from social media after a bad race, spend more time with loved ones and allow yourself to see the bigger picture beyond that one bad race.

If you do have a bad race, remember that nobody (besides you) really cares about your race time. Your friends and family care about you, but the exact time is arbitrary to them. The world keeps turning, no matter your finish time.

6. Don’t ignore an injury

Mental toughness means accepting the reality of the situation if you’re injured. Take ownership of the injury and make a game plan to recover and to prevent running injuries sooner rather than later.

Find a good mobility and injury prevention program to re-strengthen the injured area and to help ensure that this doesn’t happen again. And focusing on getting stronger is a more positive mindset than simply staying upset that you’re injured.

You can even use this time to work on breathing techniques for runners, flexibility, or other areas that don’t often get enough attention.

7. Rest (if you need it)

If you get injured leading up to a race, remember that mental toughness does not mean ignoring your injury in order to stick to your training plan. You are not going to instantly lose fitness by taking one day off or by modifying your training plan to rest a particular part of your body.

resting runner

In fact, runners who relentlessly adhere to their training plan through injury often end up with stress fractures and other overuse injuries. So if you need to take a day or a week off due to injury leading up to a race, do it. It beats the alternative in the grand scheme of things.

8. Have other hobbies

Before the race, it can be detrimental to think about your training, the race, and other runners’ training plans 24/7. There comes a time when you need to turn off social media, quit talking about running, and stop researching the race.

Make sure you have some other hobbies, so you don’t obsess over running 24/7. Don’t overanalyze the situation and stress yourself. You will do great!

Mental training for athletes takes time to master, but there is no doubt that it will improve your performance on race day and help you to achieve your marathon goals!


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I’m Natalie Rizzo, an NYC-based Registered Dietitian.

My mission is to help everyday athletes fuel their fitness with plants.

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