The Marathon Diaries: How to Get in the Mental Game

Annie gets some great tips from local running guru John Goldthorp for how to get mentally prepared to tackle 26.2.

For the last 106 days, I have logged miles, held pigeon pose, done ab work (ew), stretched … the list goes on. All of this so that when November 18th rolls around, my body will be ready to cover the 26.2 miles of the Philadelphia Marathon. But what about my mind? Will I be mentally prepared for such a huge challenge?

I recently thought about last year’s race: Around mile 22, I looked at my friends Aubree and Cassie, who were nice enough to run the most boring part of the course with me (Manayunk and back), and said, “I don’t want to run anymore.” They’re both marathoners, so they just laughed and told me to keep moving. They knew it was all mental at this point and nothing was wrong with my legs. Since they won’t be with me this year, it’s up to me to keep my mental status in check.

I decided to contact John Goldthorp, run coach and Lululemon Ambassador, to see if he could give me some mental-preparation tips  John has been a fitness professional in the Philadelphia area for the past 10 years and I knew I could trust his guidance.

His number one piece of advice? Practice rational thinking. “You need to think about what’s really happening,” he explained. “Don’t dwell on what’s yet to come.” I do tend to worry about how many miles I have left instead of thinking about how many miles I have already covered, so this is something I’ll work on.

He also said I should simulate race-day conditions: “Get up at the same time you’ll get up for your marathon, eat the same foods, run at the same time the race starts, and try to cover parts of the course.” I plan to try this for my long run next weekend. My favorite running route is Kelly Drive, so I often cover parts of the course, anyway. But doing it at the same time as the race with much of the same pre-race preparation will help me identify any possible issues that could come up.

I also asked John about stepping up my mental game during the race. He suggested breaking up the race into increments and taking the time to do a “body scan” to see how my body feels. “Relaxation is most important. Being tense expends more energy, so try to stay loose when you’re running,” he said. He also warned against starting out too fast: “You need to picture people passing you at the start, and then you passing them at the finish. Don’t get caught up in the crowd and take off as soon as you hear the gun.” That might prove to be a challenge—how can you not take off at a dead sprint after they play “Eye of the Tiger” on repeat for two hours before the race? But I’ll do my best.

When I asked him how to sum up marathon mental preparation in just a few words, he said, “discipline and patience.” They’re two of the hardest things to master, but the two most necessary words to remember to have a successful race.

After speaking with John, I stuck around for the Lululemon Run Club, which he leads on Thursdays at 6 p.m. at the Walnut Street store. To be honest, I was scared. Other than seeing friends while I’m out on a run and sticking together for a little bit, I really don’t run in a group. I’m self-conscious of my pace and I don’t want to be responsible for holding anyone back. I actually made my friend Kate come just in case everyone was super fast. (Sorry, Kate, I don’t feel bad about making you slow down.) As it turned out, I kept up pretty well! I definitely wasn’t leading the pack, but I never lost sight of the group. I saw this as mental preparation in itself: Attempting something new and pushing myself to lengthen my stride and pick up the pace can be difficult if you’re running most of your miles solo. So it was nice to see that my training is paying off in other ways than just distance.

As is usually the case with Lululemon events, everyone was really nice and supportive. I ran without music on a new route and loved it. It was also great to meet other people of varying levels who are planning to run either the half or full marathon. I’m definitely going to make it part of my workout routine whenever possible.

Thirty-four days until race day! (WHAT?!)

>> Tell us: How do you get mentally prepared for a tough fitness challenge? Share your tips and advice in the comments!

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Annie Acri is an administrative assistant at the Drexel University College of Medicine and is working toward her master’s of communication degree. The 2012 Philadelphia Marathon will be her second marathon. Follow along every Tuesday as Annie posts about the ups and downs of training as she prepares for the big race on November 18th. Catch up on the series here.

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  • Aunt Beth

    Keep going Anne!!! I will remember some of this mental advice when I am Dragon Boat racing in Disney on Saturday. I am going to share this info with the Dragon Sisters.

  • Dave R

    When you are feeling beat up later on in the marathon, definitely think about how many miles you have put behind you to remind yourself how well you are doing. And keep doing!

    My excitement is compounding as the race draws nearer. Your blogs are adding to that excitement, but also allowing me to reflect on the many key components to a successful endurance event. Keep it up into the homestretch and all the way across the finish line! Can’t wait; see you there!