In Running – The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste!

Your Mind is the Key to a Successful Race!


Spring marathon and half-marathon season is upon us, and there are a slew of them in April and May, including the Super Bowl of all marathons, Boston.

The cold months (in most areas) of physical training, with a combination of long runs, goal pace miles, hill repeats, cross-training and all the other ingredients to prepare you for the big day is not only necessary but mandatory–it gets all your critical body parts and muscles in condition.  However, besides building your body engine, you also need to work very hard on your computer, the critical hard drive–your mind (also known as mental conditioning).  For many seasoned runners, this is all too familiar and to be straight up, the mind is the ultimate make or break component as you work your way through your race.  In my opinion, mental conditioning is even more critical than all the physical training you’ve done to prepare for your race.

It’s no secret; running is very physical, however, during a race, no matter how much you’ve trained, there will come a point where the yelling, high-fives, I feel great–this is awesome feeling will likely come to a grinding halt and your body will say, “I have had enough, period!”  It’s going to happen.  So, what will you do?  It’s the moment of truth and it is humbling.  Well, that’s where your real race will start.  My advice–don’t get freaked out by this but rather prepare for it and it will pay you back ten-fold.  Seasoned runners know exactly what I’m talking about; new runners are in virgin territory and have no idea what to expect.  Great ultra marathoners such as Marshall Ulrich, Dean Karnazas and Scott Jurek have very strong mental conditioning.  Yea, they’re running studs and have great body endurance, but I bet if you ask any one of them they will say, “it’s all mental.”  It’s the same principal for us mere mortals.

Here are some things that work for me.  First, during all of my physical training I use this mantra; my mind controls my body, my body does not control my mind.  Like everyone, I have good and bad training runs, but my mind is always in control.  I mentally work through the inevitable pain, fatigue, negative thoughts and conquer them, ultimately finishing what I started.  No matter how good or bad I feel, subconsciously embedded into my mind is the I CAN DO IT attitude.

I also use visualization during my training runs and races.  I visualize myself crossing the finish line.  I can clearly see in my mind a mental picture of the finish line, including the final stretch, spectators cheering, and the feel of actually crossing it. I can feel the kind volunteer placing the medal around my neck and walking through the chute with that satisfied feeling of accomplishment. It keeps me going, keeps me motivated and distracts me from the pain,fatigue and emotions no doubt I will feel.

Another of my secret weapons is the movie, Spirit of the Marathon, which I watch the night before every marathon.  This movie inspires and motivates me each and every time I watch it.  It gives me the mental boost I need.  You may also want to read up on mental conditioning for runners.  Here are two recommendations: Brain Training for Runners by Matt Fitzgerald and Mental Training for Runners by Jeff Galloway.  Though not my bibles, these are good books for acquiring a few tips that may help you.

Butterflies are not only common, but natural before your race.  You WILL experience them.  Let it happen, welcome them and use them to your advantage. It’s just nervous energy and it will go away during the first mile of your race. Remember, my mind controls my body, my body does not control my mind.  And on race day, here is a tip on how I approach the marathon.  Do not look at your race in one chunk, 26.2 or 13.1 miles can be extremely overwhelming.  Just like cleaning out your garage or a closet, break it up into pieces.  During a marathon I play mind games; my first goal is to get to 6.2 miles, then I know only the teens remain.  My next chunk is 10.2 miles, then I only have 16 to go. Then 13.1 and I’m half way there. Then 16.2, I’m now in single digits.  Then 20, only a 10K to go. Then I chill out and take it one mile at a time:  21, 22, 23, 24 and when I hit 25, I know I have the race in the bag and sometimes will even get an energy boost.

Like magic,  the visualization technique of running that final stretch towards the finish line plays out in real life, and hopefully with a happy ending!  This tecnique has gotten me through 87 marathons so far, and hopefully through my final 13 towards my goal of 100! My mind controls my body, my body does not control my mind!

Great success in your race this spring and if you have some mental technique that works for you, please post it!


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  • March 20, 2012 4:40 PM

    I completely agree that the mental aspect is incredibly important. I’m running the Barcelona Marathon on Sunday. I know I can cover the distance as I have done so many times before. The challenge is going to be to the mental effort required to concentrate on not giving up, on overriding my body’s instincts to just stop moving. But it is also the mental effort required to get up and run early in the morning before work everyday when you would rather be in bed, knowing that all these months of hard work are all in aid of putting yourself through a massive amount of physical discomfort on one Sunday in spring.

    Good luck for yours,

    Jonathan at Ethical Athlete.

  • March 21, 2012 10:07 AM

    Your mentality is definitely the biggest factor on how you will do on your marathon. Once you hit that wall, you have to keep pushing! Even if it seems likes it impossible. I’ve only ran a marathon once and it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I think that’s amazing you have done 87! That’s Awesome!

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