Mentally Preparing for a Marathon

Mentally Preparing for a Marathon - A Pretty Place to Play

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.

Mentally Preparing for a Marathon - A Pretty Place to Play

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.

Mentally Preparing for a Marathon - A Pretty Place to Play

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?

Mental Health

Mental Health - A Pretty Place To Play

On World Mental Health yesterday my feed was full of posts about how it’s ok not to be ok. Although it might not be the best sample, after all I curate my own feed, there’s the sense that mental health is being talked about more. Women’s Health, a magazine with a circulation of more than 130,000, has a whole month devoted to the issue, and brands are increasingly jumping on the bandwagon (or posting rhetoric at opportune moments). This is all great. I am genuinely pleased mental health is becoming something people talk about, and to be honest if it wasn’t for this environment I probably wouldn’t be as open as I am. However, what if it’s not as good as it seems?

Chatting to friends off the back of World Mental Health Day there was a sense of frustration.  Some expressed the feeling they’d been reduced to a statistic, a 1 in 4, and concerns were voiced that our, often traumatising, conditions were somehow being glamourised, cooped by anyone with an Instagram account and an agenda. Another hashtag. Hattie Gladwell wrote an article last year about her frustration around mental illness being portrayed as ‘quirky’ and her concerns that people may not understand the seriousness of these disorders. That this may give the impression that mental illness is something that can be controlled through simple steps - going for a run, meditating, drinking more water (these things help, but they don’t solve the problem). An impression that is damaging to people who don’t understand mental illness. There was the concern that white anxiety has resulted in people were supportive around mental health to a point, but as soon as things get uncomfortable that support vanished.

My own experiences mirror these frustrations. Being told that the most interesting people always have mental health conditions, yet when I have a crisis that I need to walk into the fire, toughen up, stop sulking. There’s the sense that sometimes you have to have the right sort of mental health issues. Nothing too serious. Nothing that manifests itself in an ugly way. You can be ‘quirky’ but god forbid if things get ugly. And that’s the thing, mental illness is ugly. OCD isn’t about cleaning, it’s dark intrusive thoughts that leave you traumatised and consume every part of you. Anxiety isn’t about worrying about a test, it’s an overwhelming feeling of fear and dread that stops you in your tracks and pins you down. Depression isn’t feeling sad, it’s a black cloud that follows you, pouring down on you as you try to struggle through. Of course everyone experiences these conditions differently, but what I’m trying to say is that these conditions are serious, debilitating and traumatising. And that’s before I’ve even mentioned the conditions that are deemed unpalatable - Hannah Jane Parkinson wrote about this aspect beautifully in The Guardian. I accept my anxiety, but my God I’d rather not have it.

Writing about this stuff is difficult. Everyone experiences their own feelings their own way, and I don’t want to reduce anyone’s personal feelings, how you identify is your choice. However, I do want to say be careful. Be careful about saying you have OCD, anxiety or depression. If things feel bad go and see a doctor, don’t self-diagnose, don’t push a pathology on yourself that may not be applicable. Don’t say you cured your pathology through kale and HIIT, because when you do these things you risk reducing mental illness to something that can be easily dismissed, which is what things like World Mental Health Day has been trying to overcome. It is ok not to be ok, let’s make it ok for not being ok to be ugly.

* image: Alex Dixon Photography

Bellabeat Leaf

This post is in collaboration with Bellabeat.

Bellabeat Leaf - A Pretty Place to Play (Alex Dixon Photography)

Back in August I shared that I’d experienced a mental health crisis. It was my first crisis in a long while, and the way I handled it was a real testament to how far I’ve come. I recognised that I wasn’t functioning well in the world, a few years ago that would never have happened. I was able to do what I needed to do in the circumstances. I did right by myself and my health. I slowed down, I sought support, I managed my condition in the right way for me and curtailed a crisis that could’ve escalated into something much worse. In a way I came out of this crisis feeling even stronger about my mental health, knowing that I could handle things.

Bellabeat Leaf - A Pretty Place To Play (Alex Dixon Photography)

During the short time I had off work to deal with things I received a package from the team at Bellabeat. This package contained a Leaf, wellness tech designed to guide you towards being the best version of yourself. It sounds unutterably cheesy, but it really works. My Leaf became a really useful tool when I was struggling. You see, when I’m in crisis I forget the things that help me. Things like drinking enough water, moving, meditating, sleeping. The Leaf helps track these elements. During those recovery days it was a really helpful reminder to look after the basics, and today it’s a great way to make sure I continue to look after myself and live my best life.

Bellabeat Leaf - A Pretty Place to Play (Alex Dixon Photography)

The Leaf stands out for me because it’s so different to any other ‘wellness’ tech out there at the moment. Firstly there’s how it looks. It doesn’t look like tech. So many trackers are, frankly, pretty ugly. The Leaf isn’t. It could pass as jewellery. It’s also versatile, you can wear it on your wrist, as a necklace, clipped to your clothing or attached to one of Bellabeat’s beautiful mala beads. Beyond it’s looks, the Leaf is different because it’s not just focused on how many steps you’ve taken, or calories you’ve burned. Yes, you can look these metrics up on Bellabeat’s app, but the Leaf aims to be more holistic. It looks at the big picture from how much and how well you’ve slept, to whether you’re hydrated and what stage in your cycle you’re at. I’m a huge fan of looking at wellbeing in the round, especially when you’re managing mental health conditions, and for me the Leaf has all the right prompts to encourage me to take responsibility for my self.

Bellabeat Leaf - A Pretty Place to Play (Alex Dixon Photography)

Alongside the Leaf, Bellabeat also sent headphones and mala beads to help me experience 3D meditation. 3D meditation is all about immersing yourself in the moment through guided meditations that include binaural sounds to stimulate brain functions, breathing exercises to calm the mind (you know I love a breathing excercise!) and using mala beads to count your mantras - something I found particularly soothing when battling with some of the more unhelpful comments about my mental health. Meditation is something I know helps me, but I am terrible at practicing it. I know it’s a habit, and I know how habits form, but for some reason this is one I’ve never quite been able to master. Having short guided meditations at my finger tips has really helped me to cultivate the habit, and it’s reassuring to know they’re right there when I need them.

Bellabeat Leaf - A Pretty Place to Play (Alex Dixon Photography)

The Leaf genuinely helps me stay on top of the things I need to take responsibility for to stay well. It’s not a cure by any stretch, but when life is crazy and there’s a million things to think about having a tool that helps me focus on looking after myself in holistic way is really helpful. It keeps me on track.

How do you keep yourself on track when it comes to the basics?

*images: Alex Dixon Photography

** this post was created in collaboration with Bellabeat, but all opinions are my own.