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Is it All in the Mind? The Psychology behind Marathon Running

Is it All in the Mind? The Psychology behind Marathon Running

If you’re considering a marathon then the first thing you’ll think about is training. Getting your body in the condition it needs to be to make it through the race. A marathon is about more than your body though. Even when your training regime is complete, you’ve arrived ready to race and your body is primed your state of mind is still essential. The wrong state of mind can make or break your performance.

We’ve got a few techniques up our sleeve which could positively impact upon your performance and they’re all built upon exercising your mind in the right way. Having optimal mental preparation is just as important as optimal physical preparation.


Some experts will tell you there are prerequisite characteristics you must possess to succeed in a marathon. Whilst this can be true it is also possible to develop these characteristics as you train your body. It goes without saying that you need to be highly motivated, self-disciplined and have strong time management skills – especially when trying to plan your training around your life.

The best marathon running training programme is all well and good but it’s absolutely no use if you’re not mentally ready to give it your all from a motivational perspective. Self-discipline too plays a key part in your training. You have to put your training first and forget about everything else you can. You need to build your training into your lifestyle and ensure it always takes place. When it comes to the race you need to be disciplined enough to keep going even when your body tells you to stop – your mind has to remain disciplined for the benefit of your body. With these initial skills and mind sets in place you’ll be ready to make it through at least.

Goal Setting

If you’re a first time marathon runner then your main goal will be pretty simple start and finish the race! However, it makes good sense for your mental training to set smaller goals so you don’t get side tracked along the way. Regardless of your experience level or aspirations you need to get specific with your goals as soon as you can. Sports science experts split goals into two separate categories:

  • Process Goals – goals which focus on mastering the skill involved in the action, therefore running. Process goals could be anything from challenging yourself to stick strictly to your training programme, even if it’s an everyday workout or improving your nutrition for the benefit of your body overall.
  • Outcome Goals – these goals do what they say in their name. They relate to the end outcome of the experience. Outcome goals could be setting a time within which you want to run the marathon in or running a personal best on race day.

You should set yourself three outcome goals, one should be easily achievable, one should be realistic and one should be your ultimate goal. Achieving any one of the three is still an achievement and if you’re realistic in your goal setting you’ll be happy if you get any of them.

Mental Strategies for Training

Maintaining your training schedule can be difficult. Here are some tips for ensuring your training is completed and you’re as prepared as you can possibly be.

Firstly, it can really help to engage a coach. It could be you get in contact with one of the personal trainers from your gym or enlist the help of a marathon running friend. Either way the support of another person who knows how it works will really boost your momentum.

Secondly, breaking your course into mental sections when training on long runs will really help. It means you can treat each section of the run as a separate box to tick off your list and makes the overall length seem much less demanding.

Finally, you need to be realistic from the outset. You need to be prepared to find training hard and therefore you have to be ready to cope with the physical and mental demands that come with an intensive training schedule. Below is a more in depth look at the different mental training strategies you can utilise.


Talking to yourself really works, even if you only do it in your head. Positive statements at all times will lead to positive results so tell yourself:

“Keep running – maybe I’ll feel better when I have a drink”

“I’ll be really let down later if I don’t keep running right now”

“In just an hour I’ll be able to enjoy a nice warm shower”

“This training is what will get me through the marathon. It will give me the confidence I need”

These may sound like difficult things to say but being positive and bargaining with yourself will get you through.


Imaging yourself in positive, successful positions will help. It may sound silly out of context but once you get into it, you’ll understand. Imagine yourself as a world-class marathon runner, Stephen Kiprotich or Geoffrey Mutai, and then picture yourself leading in an Olympic Marathon. If this doesn’t work imagine yourself running without a care in the world and enjoying every moment. It may be extremely far from the truth but it can make a huge difference to your performance and keep you going a little bit longer!

These are just two techniques but they could be the ones that get you through your training and if they’ve worked throughout this period they should work on the big day itself. Getting prepared mentally does matter as much as physically as it’s your brain that will push you on, on the day.