Mental Approach to the Marathon

By Ryan Warrenburg, ZAP Fitness

The anxiety of an approaching race can affect your performance and be difficult to manage, especially when it comes to the marathon. The marathon is a one shot deal that you’ve (hopefully) put months into preparing for. If it doesn’t go well you will likely have to wait a while before attempting another.

If you’re thinking, “I was fine until I started reading this article. I’m putting this thing down,” don’t! Having a structured plan and taking time to mentally prepare yourself can help eliminate pre race anxiety, but these tools also put you in a position to run your best on race day. Whether you’re racing in 2 weeks or 2 months, it’s never too late to start thinking about your approach to the race.

Training is the Hard Part

The best piece of advice I can give people to calm their nerves heading into a big race is to understand that by the time you step on the line 98% of the race is already run. If you’ve arrived to the start line prepared you’ve already done all the heavy lifting. (If you haven’t, well… start slow.) Getting up early to run during the week, putting in an 18 miler on the treadmill because nobody can run outside this winter, icing your legs after a workout – that’s the hard work. The race is gravy, an opportunity to reap the rewards of all the hard work you’ve put in.

Control the Controllables

Remember, it’s just a foot race, don’t make it rocket science. Control the controllables, everything else is a distraction. I am always amazed how much time and energy people spend worrying about things outside their control – the weather, how fast their running buddy goes out, the course. Prepare for the things you can control and don’t worry about the rest. You’ll sleep more soundly the night before the race and perform better.

Have a Flexible Plan

A hand me down lesson I learned from the late exercise psychologist and ZAP Fitness co-founder Andy Palmer is to have a plan, but make it flexible. What if it’s hot? What if I start too fast? What if I start too slow? What if I miss a water station? What if my pace group starts too fast? It’s important to have a plan, but in most races things don’t go perfectly and you should be prepared for that. One bad mile isn’t going to ruin your race, but string a few together and you’re in trouble. Whether you run a mile too fast or too slow, don’t panic, just get back on track from that point. Panicking and trying to immediately make up for lost time is the worst move you can make. Dramatic movement in a marathon is the equivalent of alternately stomping on the gas pedal and brake, a poor move in a 26.2 mile race where fuel economy is paramount.

Chunk the Race: The Warmup

As you structure your race plan, break it up into 4 chunks. The first 5 miles should be the “warm-up.” For those outside elite athlete territory you don’t really need to run a warm-up beforehand, outside of your walk to the start line. Use the first couple of miles to ease yourself into the race, targeting 15-20 seconds per mile slower than your goal pace and working up to your target pace by mile 5. This will help you be more comfortable in the early miles and keep you from letting your nerves take over and starting too fast. Starting slower will make you 30-90 seconds slower than goal pace at halfway.

You should aim for a negative split in the marathon. This takes confidence to execute, but will leave you in much better position to finish strong and avoid riding that fine line throughout the race where you are more likely to run into problems. Give yourself some leeway early and you’ll dramatically increase the odds of having a great race. Going out faster than your goal pace markedly decreases your margin for error and increases your chances of trouble late. The best runners in the world do this consistently; take a page from their book.

Chunk the Race: The Setup

The second chunk of the race is “the setup.” Through this section focus on keeping your pace even and your body relaxed. This part of the race sets up the final 10 miles where the race is really won. You can’t win the race from miles 5-15, but you can sure lose it. Think about getting to mile 15 where you need to as easily as possible. This is the time to set your body on cruise control, stay relaxed and be energy efficient – Prius mode. You are setting yourself up for success later in the race.

Chunk the Race: Race Begins

The next chunk is where the race really starts and where you shift your focus to race mode. From miles 15-20 you want to remain relaxed, but if you’re feeling good start moving forward a little bit. It takes a lot of focus to be engaged here, so save your mental energy for this part of the race.

Chunk the Race: Ferrari Mode

The final chunk of the race is the last 10k is where you can forget about the watch and focus on running hard – time for Ferrari mode. Break this section into small pieces and avoid focusing on the last 10k all at once. Focusing on the entirety of the race is an overwhelming thought, especially when it feels like getting through 4 more minutes, let alone 4 more miles, would be a monumental feat. Break it into small increments, a few minutes, passing the guy you’ve been tracking for 12 miles, the right hand turn ahead, whatever it is, but focus only on that task at that time. You’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish when you narrow your focus. Think about keeping your repetition of foot strike high and maintaining your composure in your upper body. This is going to be hard, embrace that, and know that it’ll be worth it when you cross that line at the end.

Preparation is the race – the time on the course is your victory lap, enjoy it!

For More Articles on Mental Training Click Here

*This Article Originally Appeared in the March 2014 Issue of Running Journal