Marathon Training: The 3-Step Strategy to Mentally Prepare for Crushing 26.2 Miles

How to get your mind in gear for the best race of your life.

Hopefully, you’ve been training your body for tackling the Philadelphia marathon for a few months now. Now, it’s time to start thinking about how you’re going to mentally tackle the 26.2 miles. For most, your longest run throughout your training is probably in the 18- to-22-mile range, so right about now you might be thinking, “How in the world will I be able to run an additional four to eight miles?!”

Thinking about the race as three separate, smaller runs versus one long daunting 26.2-mile slog can help you mentally overcome the mileage. Here, how to break down the 26.2 miles into easier-to-digest bite-sized chunks. 

Part 1: The Warm-Up
Miles 1 to 15

The key is to think of the first 15 miles as a warm-up, not part of the “race.” Imagine you’re out for a 15-mile long run. The pace should feel comfortable and you should be relaxed. This is the part of the race where patience pays off, as you’ll need to conserve both physical and mental energy. Similar to muscles, your mind can only handle so much before failing, and once you’ve exhausted your brainpower your muscles will quickly follow.

To avoid running out of mental power in the later stages of the marathon when you’ll need it the most, you’ll want to use virtually no mental power during “the warm-up,” or first 15 miles.

Here’s how to do it: Instead of focusing on running a marathon, look around and soak it all in. High-five a few spectators. Smile at some of the volunteers. Think about how awesome it is to be running right here, right now.

Part 2: The Tempo
Miles 16 to 21

Now that you’re done with the warm-up, it’s time for the tempo part of the race. This is where the pace will start to feel a bit harder, and you may find yourself slowing a bit without noticing. To maintain your pace, you’ll need to start tapping into the mental energy you’ve been holding off using until now. At this point, you want to start focusing on staying relaxed but quick. Picking a group of runners to stay with is the best move here. Latch on and only focus on staying with them until the 22-mile mark.

Part 3: The Race
Miles 22 to 26.2

This is it, the final and hardest part of the marathon. Now’s the time to give it all you’ve got. No more holding back: It’s only a 4.2-mile race at this point! When I hit Part 3 of the marathon mental game, I like to compare how far I’ve run to how far I still need to run to reach the finish line. Think about it: At this point, you’ve gone 22 miles, so what’s another 4.2? You can do it!


Cory Smith is the owner of Run Your Personal Best, an online running coaching business, and a two-time NCAA Division 1 National Qualifier and 4:03 miler while at Villanova University. He also serves as Running Editor for Gear Institute and has been a regular running contributor for Be Well Philly for the Broad Street Run and the Philadelphia Marathon.

Like what you’re reading? Stay in touch with Be Well Philly — here’s how: