10 mental strategies to make you a stronger runner

Marathon training: You need to train your brain to help you run your best

Many of us will experience anxious moments as the miles increase and marathon day gets closer. The voices in our head shout a little louder as the long runs get longer. Unfortunately, many runners turn on their music and try and block out what signals the head is sending to the body.

As marathon runners, we are often guilty of churning out miles but ignoring what is going on inside our head. If we are not careful, our head can become filled with negativity and doubts which can adversely impact a runner’s confidence and performance.

Sports psychology is all about learning how to stay calm and positive, avoid anxiety, deal with doubts and achieve peak performance on race day by training our head as well as our legs. You don’t need to be an elite athlete to apply the tips and secrets of sports psychology to your running.

We are all looking for peak performance whether our goal is to win the marathon or finish in one piece with a smile on our face. Sport psychology techniques and exercises take practise and will only work on race day if you start integrating them into your training from now. A few minutes a day is all you need and these tips can make all the difference to your confidence, anxiety levels and race day performance.


Believe you can do it: If your goal for the marathon is realistic, there is no reason why you should not believe that the goal is possible. Working from a realistic goal and training plan sets you up for a great race day. Regardless of how much we believe we can do it, it's important to regularly sit down and review your progress and realise that you are getting closer to the goal.

Each weekly review of your training plan should ratify that you are heading in the right direction. There may be setbacks along the way, but with regular analysis of your progress you can adapt your goal and approach race day confident in the belief that you can achieve your goal. This sense of belief in your training and your ability is the cornerstone for keeping positive along the marathon training months.

Positive self talk: Notice what you are telling yourself when you are running. If you are filling your head with negative thoughts this will transfer to your running. As your confidence drops, you will start to lose your posture, good technique and become heavier on your feet.

We need to be able to fill our heads with positive images and affirmations to keep us strong, tall, confident and relaxed when we need it most. These images will get you through the tough patch of the run and out of the temporary dip in confidence and energy.

Running mantras: Some runners stick notes on walls, others use vision boards and some even have tattoos to remind them to remain positive and focused. Get inspired and take a little time to create some positive lines that you believe and will motivate and inspire you to keep on running.

Without travelling down the tattoo route, you can just write your running mantra on the back your hand if it helps keep you positive on the run. Simple mantras such as “one mile at a time” or “I can do it” have provided great focus for runners who get distracted by negativity along the route.

One mile at a time: The marathon distance is overwhelming and focusing on how long you have left to go is pointless. Focus on what you can do in the current mile to make running easier on your body and mind. Break your run up into manageable chunks and give each of these a particular focus.

You may choose focus on an element of technique, breathing, fuelling or even a mindful distraction such as counting the number of runners you see wearing green T-shirts. Tick off each milestone as it passes by and don’t look too far ahead. Look at what is within your control right now.

Know your pre-race routine: Much of the marathon race day anxiety comes down to runners not being organised and getting overwhelmed by logistics. Make lists, prepare well in advance and avoid unnecessary panics by being organised.

We may not have the luxury of a support team that an elite athlete might have to help with logistics for our race day, so we need to be even more organised when it comes to knowing what to bring, where to go and what to wear. Each long run is your trial run for race day so,, as the race gets closer, you should know your pre-race breakfast, your race day clothing, your food, drink and gadgets, and everything else that is important for you for race day.

Visualise your race day: Can you picture yourself on marathon day crossing the finish line? Create a short video in your head where you see yourself getting up on marathon morning, eating breakfast, crossing the start line, pacing your run, fuelling as you had planned and crossing the finish line with a smile. As you get closer to race day this video clip should become more clear as you can visualise more clearly the route, the terrain, your clothing and the locations of your supporters.

It only takes a couple of minutes each to bring yourself through this video and over time it will become clearer to the extent that you will feel it is well within your grasp. Replay the video in your head each day and it will help with positivity and belief.

Prepare for all situations: There are certain things we cannot prepare for that may happen on race day. We can however plan what we will do if they do happen. Make a list of all the things you are worried about and then write the solution of what you will do if any of them happen. This will avoid much of the anxiety and panic of worrying about the onset of a dodgy stomach, a family emergency, bad weather or an alarm clock not going off.

Control what you can control but accept that there are certain things that you cannot take responsibility for. Just having this list on paper takes the worry out of your head and you can add to this list as worries appear and disappear over the coming months.

Practice relaxation techniques: There will be times when you feel like you are overwhelmed both in training and on race day. It is how we react to these situations that will determine how it will impact our run. Accepting that there will be bad training days and bad miles along each run is the starting point. Knowing what to do to manage them is the key.

Learning techniques to keep calm, relax the body and save energy can help all runners. These skills need to be practised and won’t magically work if you don’t apply them regularly in training. Experiment with breathing tips, running techniques and mindful exercises to help your head deal with any panics along the run.

Manage your nerves: Being nervous and anxious uses up valuable energy. Save your energy for your run and instead trust in your training, work on developing your belief and confidence, and bring back your positive mindset by focusing on what is in your control. Don't waste energy on focusing on things that are outside of your control. Take each long run as a milestone, a chance to build belief and confidence, to learn lessons and to practise training your head to stay in the right place as well as your legs.

Keep all in perspective: Keeping a realistic perspective of running and training and everything else you have in your life will make you a more balanced and calm runner. We are not Olympic runners who have to peak on one given day every every years. We have the luxury of finding another race in the future and have no one to answer to only than ourselves. Remember that running should be in our lives to take away stress not to add to it. Keep everything in perspective by remembering there is more to life that just this one marathon day. Stay grounded and you will enjoy the build-up and the race day all the more.

Mary Jennings is founder and running coach with ForgetTheGym.ie. Mary is also the creator of all our Irish Times Get Running programmes: Beginners Get Running, Get Running 10k and Get Running Stay Running. Sign up at irishtimes.com/GetRunning