Mental tips for runners before, during and after a marathon

With the London marathon taking place on Sunday, 23 April, runners can prepare for the mental demands of this notoriously challenging event by following the advice issued by the University of Kent’s ‘psyching teams’.

Introduced to the UK by Dr Carla Meijen, Lecturer in Sport Psychology in Kent’s School of Sport and Exercise Sciences, ‘psyching teams’ offer help and support with practical mental strategies before, during and after long distance running events.

By following the advice of Dr Meijen and her colleagues, runners can use simple techniques to prepare for mental demands such as worries about sticking to their race plan, or coping with the pain and discomfort of running a marathon.

These goal-setting, relaxation techniques and helpful self-talk improve performance and enjoyment.
Before the day Dr Meijen recommends that runners should:

  1. Have multiple goals not rely on just one time-based goal
    Many runners have a time-based goal in mind, a ‘do or die’ goal; it can be helpful to expand on this and have some flexibility in your goals. One approach is to set different levels of goals. For example setting a dream goal, for when the conditions on race day are perfect. Next, set a goal that they would still be happy with when the conditions are less than perfect. Finally, identify a goal that would be the bare minimum, if things don’t go to plan. Having these three layers of goals can help to avoid disappointment and frustration during the marathon if that ‘do or die’ goal turns out to be hard to achieve on the day.
  2. Break the race down
    Consider splitting up the race into different parts, particularly for runners who have not completed a marathon before, those 26 miles can seem a long way away. Think about the marathon as having three different parts and have a goal for each part, these don’t all have to be time-based goals. With the large crowds cheering, runners can consider using the first 8-10 miles to take in the atmosphere and get comfortable with their pace. The next 8-10 miles are about trying to intensify the effort. For the final 6 miles they need to be totally focused, monitor how they’re feeling and if things are going to plan go for a full-out effort to the finish line.
  3. Prepare in order to help reduce worries on the day
    If they have not participated in the London Marathon before, they may feel worried about what to expect on the day with so many other participants around. There will always be factors out of their control, but runners can prepare for those they can control. Do the necessary preparation before, and know the course – where are the water points? If travelling in from further away on the day, what is the pre-race nutrition strategy? They should practice their routine before and during one of the longer training runs, and make a check list based on this that they can use to help them feel more at ease.

Her advice to runners during the marathon is that they should:

  1. Run their own race
    The atmosphere at the London Marathon is inspiring, but it is also easy to get carried away at such a large event with crowds cheering; with so many other runners there is a risk of starting at a much faster pace than normal and being worn out early on. Runners should focus on running their own race – at larger events there will be different pace groups – they should follow the one that is closest to the time-based goal they have set.
  2. Recall successful training runs
    Runners should trust their training and if struggling during the race, recall those successful training runs to remember their own ability. Use these positive experiences to give confidence that it can be done. They can recall what helped them through longer runs, it may have been an inspiring song, something they say to themselves (‘I will beat this hill’, ‘keep going’, ‘relax those shoulders’) or a reason they have for running the marathon.
  3. Have a mantra
    Having a mantra can be very helpful, so pick one that has worked for in training and use that during the race. Some runners write this on their hand, or somewhere they can see it during the race as a reminder.
  4. Focusing
    There will be a time during the race when their body starts to feel tired and sore. Some runners may find it helpful to distract themselves when this happens, for example focusing on the sights or replaying a song in their mind. Other runners prefer to focus on how their body feels and use breathing as a strategy to keep focused. They should go with the one they feel most comfortable with.

After the marathon she recommends that runners should
– Reward themselves
After the initial elation, runners may feel some post-marathon blues. There should be a reward for the achievement, maybe with a massage or a nice meal, and also reflect on what they have achieved.
– Start planning for next time
Finally, it’s back to planning, and consider setting a new goal to work towards, whether that is running another marathon or a different challenge.
More info/Source: Sandy Fleming at the University of Kent



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