Preparing your body for a marathon is easy. You follow the training plan you’ve chosen. You eat sensibly. You cut back on booze. You prioritise sleep. You try to manage stress. Do all of that and you’ll make it to the start line. Preparing your mind is harder. Your mind is a much wilder beast than your body, it’s reluctant to be trained and controlled and if anything’s going to floor your marathon plans, it’s your thoughts. So how do you manage that?
Bournemouth Marathon was so good for me because I managed to keep my mind in check. It wasn’t easy, it took practice, but on the day the effort paid off in spades.
The trick to mental preparation is starting early, right at the beginning of your training cycle. When I’m planning my training I also like to take some time to think about why I’m running the race. What do I want to get out of it? Is there something I’d like to learn? Something I want to test? From the moment I signed up I had Bournemouth Marathon earmarked as a test ground for the work I’d been doing with my coach. It was planned as a milestone where I could assess my progress and identify what needed more work when it came to my relationship with running. I knew that my priorities would be to stick to my race plan, watch my form and test how it felt to run for a long time so that I could spot any weaknesses. When it comes to The Speed Project my objective is to be as mentally and physically strong as possible so that I can give as much as I can to my team. My priorities will be strength training, recovery and working through some of the fears I have around physiological pain. Once you work out the ‘why’ you can use this to mentally prepare for your marathon.
As I train I try to connect with my why during every workout. When it gets tough I draw on what I’m doing all this for. It helps focus me. It also lets me rehearse how I’ll deal with challenging moments during the marathon itself - coming back to my why, coming back to my breathing. There are so many ways to connect with your why - repeating mantras, practicing breathing protocols, physical cues - try out different techniques and find what works for you. During Bournemouth I repeated my mantras (‘I am unscared’, ‘I am an intelligent athlete’, ‘this is my race’) in my head, focused on nasal breathing and checked in on my form whenever things started to feel tough. Coming back to these little physical and mental prompts kept me focused and brought me in to the moment.
Getting real about the challenge I’m taking on has really helped me prepare. The week before Bournemouth I wrote a list of everything that could go wrong. Injury, blisters, broken headphones, sickness, a dodgy tummy, it was all covered. Then I went through and wrote down how I’d deal with each scenario, and then how I could mitigate each scenario. This exercise reminded me to respect the distance and quelled any anxieties I had about the unknown. It reassured me that if things didn’t go to plan (as often happens during a marathon) I could adapt, I had a plan B.
Talking of plans, planning my race strategy was a big part of my mental preparation for Bournemouth. There was no point in that marathon where I was without a plan. I wrote it all down in detail, visualising each mile and then visualising my reaction to challenges, to things going wrong. I visualised the barriers, the noises around me, the things that could distract me from my plan, visualising how I’d deal with the wall, with pain, with feeling like I wanted to stop. These visualisation became part of my routine. Sitting on the tube, sitting in bed, I’d take the time to get comfortable with everything that could happen, so when it did I was ready and it wouldn’t undo all the work I’d done to get to the marathon. By marathon day everything I needed to do, in every scenario, was second nature.
I’m right at the start of my journey to The Speed Project, and although I’ve worked out the ‘why’ behind my training I still need to work out exactly how I’m going to prepare mentally to train for and live through 3 days running in the desert. It’s like nothing I’ve ever done before, but I know some of these tools will make it on to the roster.
How do you mentally prepare for races?
images: Alex Dixon Photography