Whether you are steeling yourself for your first marathon or your 10th, 26.2 miles is a mental battle as well as a physical one. A mental performance coach, who has worked with Olympians and Premier League footballers, offers 12 pieces of advice
1 Get your language right
It’s our inner voice that really determines how we approach something. What we are saying to ourselves at any moment will determine how we feel about race day. If your critical inner voice starts telling you that you are no good, you aren’t going to make it, it will just highlight the fears and anxieties. Your language dictates that internal movie you play in your head: “I hope I don’t hit the wall/ I hope I don’t go too fast/slow.” So it’s very important to direct our language towards how we want to be. Talk about wanting to be confident, relaxed; talk about enjoying the day. Use your voice in a positive way. As humans, we’re very good at talking in negatives to ourselves, less so the positives!
2 Visualise the right things
Imagining yourself crossing the finish line is only really helpful to an extent. It’s like an athlete imagining themselves getting the gold medal: it gives you a certain level of belief, but doesn’t help in the actual process. What you really want to be able to imagine is doing the things that get you to the finish line. When we imagine being able to do something we are mentally rehearsing it. It actually communicates with the body too – when we imagine something, we fire up the same neurons in our brain as when we are actually experiencing it. And we want to prime our brains to be able to deal with those situations.
3 Practise the bad bits in your head – as well as the good
Imagine yourself running nice and calmly yes, but you also can imagine yourself dealing with the more stressful elements of a race as well. And then imagine being able to overcome them – being drawn by the crowds at those key moments, or focusing on your breathing, or setting yourself small goals. Practise overcoming the moments that won’t naturally be on your internal movie.
4 Rename those emotions
What you call the emotion that you are feeling can make a big difference. When you wake up on race day, if your heart-rate is elevated and your hands are a bit clammy and your head is spinning you can start saying you are nervous. But physiologically, it’s pretty much identical to feeling excited. So if you call it excitement, then that heartbeat becomes a positive thing because it’s giving you energy and anticipation towards the race. Better to ride the wave as a positive thing than fight against it.
5 Find your routine
Routines are very helpful for getting you in the right frame of mind on race day. Anything you can do to calm yourself down. One of the reasons that golfers, for instance, go through those pre-shot rituals is the mental aspect – it keeps you focused on the task itself. It can be the same with superstitions. As long as they are things you can repeat they are useful. You could recite a poem, walk backwards for 10 yards – anything, as long as you can repeat it! But you can’t wait until the race to do it because then it’s not your ritual: you have to do it when you are training to create the association. When I work with athletes we often work on consistency – on having the same feeling in practice as on the day. Nice and calm and easy.
6 Set small goals
Once you are running, don’t think too far ahead. A lot of people tend to do the first mile and think: “Oh my god I’ve still got 25 miles to go!” And even if you are thinking positively, that doesn’t help because your mind goes out to the future. And what you want to be is in the zone. The zone is a present state. Even with the very top runners, if they start thinking “oh my god I’m going to win this” it can have a detrimental effect on performance because then they aren’t in the present.
The best way to stay in the moment is to set yourself small goals. People can work well to different lengths: a mile, a kilometre or just that lamppost in the distance. But that’s all you focus on: then you set another one. Then another one. And that makes a big difference because you are staying more in the moment than focusing on the distance, which is where all the anxiety is.
7 It’s all about the process, not the outcome
Winners don’t actually think about winning, they think about performing, about putting in a winning performance. For each individual running a marathon, they are going to have their own gold medal in mind. It could be a time, or just completing it, or maintaining running without having to walk for a certain time. The best way to get to that goal is to think about what you are doing in the moment – focus about the process rather than the outcome. That’s the only thing you are in control of at any moment. So that comes alongside staying in the moment. Focus on your rhythm, your movement, your breathing and those targets, those stepping stones nearby. One section at a time.
8 Find your way of blocking out the bad thoughts
It might be counting, or a song in your head, or anything just to take you away from your internal dialogue. When you are suffering, your internal dialogue starts to go against you rather than with you. So, a song in your head, something nice and upbeat, which reflects your running rhythm, can be extremely powerful. Some people might find that annoying and just try counting – like Paula Radcliffe does. Anything to get you away from that internal dialogue.
9 Look up, and look around
People tend to look down at the ground when they are running. That’s unhelpful in various ways – one is that we tend to internalise when we look down. We tend to talk to ourselves more, and feel more pain when we look down. Look up, and instead of staring at things, try to use your peripheral vision. When you use your peripheral vision you go into a kind of light trance, the zone state. So you feel less – well, I like to say discomfort rather than pain! If you are using your peripheral vision, it’s also much much harder to feel stress. You actually have to look for it. When we are stressed or feeling pain we tend to have a narrower focus – tunnel vision – so we zoom in on that pain.
10 Put a smile on your face
You notice this a lot on social media – people talking about loving the training, posting their mileage on Facebook, saying how they love running. But then they get to the race itself and are feeling worried, and they don’t perform the same. They thing they have to feel and think differently because it’s a race – to take it more seriously. But actually, we are less capable when we take things more seriously than when we are having fun. When we are happy we are more energised. We’re more intelligent. The synapses in our brain fire better when we are happy. So we are actually better running with a smile on our faces.
11 Think of it as a staging post, not the end goal
If the marathon is your end goal it can be a problem – whether it’s a good or bad day. What happens afterwards? You get this at top level too – people who want to win the gold medal or a particular tournament because it has been their life’s dream. They achieve it – and then quite often people don’t achieve very much after that, because they haven’t set anything up for afterwards. So set a goal for afterwards, even if it’s just a small fun run. Then your marathon becomes a stepping stone in itself and you have something to move on afterwards can really help the mind focus. And it means all that training you’ve done isn’t just for one thing. That gives meaning to your run whether it goes well or not.
12 Remember what you have achieved
If the worst happens on race day and you have to pull out, or you are injured, try to think positively anyway. Focus on what you have achieved and not what you haven’t. If you manage 23 miles, well that’s still amazing. Top performers look at these things as learning experiences. If you were going to do it again, what would you learn from that? What would you do differently? Then your mind starts looking for answers, so instead of focusing on the negative you look at things you did right, and look for areas of improvement. And that fires the brain towards something rather than away from it.
If you look at all the things you do wrong you actually are mentally rehearsing your mistakes, which means you are more likely to repeat them. So you don’t go into denial on it, but you put your focus on solutions not a problem.
Andy Barton is working with Holiday Inn® Hotels and Resorts, official hotel partner of the Virgin Money London Marathon, to provide mind and body training tips to help get runners across the finish line
This article was written by Andy Barton, for theguardian.com on Thursday 16th April 2015 11.21 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010