Updated: 7 days ago
So many runners are hampered by race-day nerves, getting in the way of confidence and performance. Or they struggle with maintaining motivation. Here, I outline 6 secrets to beating marathon stress, so you can improve your performance and become a better, faster runner.
Notice what you are telling yourself when you are running. If you are filling your head with negative thoughts, this will transfer to your running. Instead, try telling yourself what you would like to happen, how you would like to be, think, feel and behave. For example, if you lack the motivation to train, imagine yourself excitedly lacing up your shoes on a sunny day. Practice reframing your negative thoughts to a more positive direction. For example, turn “I don’t want to run today” into “I will feel successful after I complete today’s run”. Develop a habit of seeing opportunities instead of problems.
Practice using positive affirmations. Take time to create some positive lines that will motivate and inspire you to keep on running, and that you can believe in. Keep it simple, for example, “one mile at a time” or “I can do it”. Write them on sticky notes and display them around your house, get a reminder to flash up on your phone, or practice repeating them in your head.
Harness the power of your imagination by visualising your desired outcome: picture yourself fitter, faster and leaner. Or imagine yourself on marathon day, successfully crossing the finish line. Put in as much detail as you can, sights, sounds, smells etc. You could even create a short video in your head featuring you getting up on marathon morning, eating breakfast, crossing the start line, pacing your run, fuelling as you had planned and crossing the finish line with a smile. Replay the video in your head each day to help build positivity and self-belief.
Understand Your “Why”
When the going gets tough, it can be helpful to remind yourself why you set yourself this challenge. Having a clear narrative explaining your decision to run is a great resource to call on when you might be struggling. Write it, draw it or record yourself talking about it, and try to include the emotions, logical thoughts and previous experiences that lead you there.
‘Tier’ Your Goals
We set goals in order to give our training meaning and direction. But having only one goal can set you up for disappointment. High-level coaches and sports psychologists encourage their athletes to set tiers of goals, or levels of success. First set your optimal goal, then break this down into 2 – 3 manageable back-ups that you will still consider a win. Because “success” is not a binary phenomenon; it’s a spectrum.
Focus on the Joy
Remember – you run because you love running! Remind yourself of all the ways running brings you intrinsic pleasure and what it is about running that you love. Find what excites you about running – and do a lot more of that.
3. PRACTICE RELAXATION
Stay Loose and Breathe
Research has shown that during a marathon, elite athletes constantly reminded or told themselves to 'relax', 'stay loose'. Learning techniques to keep calm, relax the body and save energy can help all runners. Experiment with breathing tips, running techniques and mindful exercises to help your head deal with any panics along the run. One technique is to focus on your breathing: controlled, relatively deep rhythmic breathing is the key to relaxation. When you breathe out, try to imagine the tension leaving your body.
Try to remain relaxed while running, but be aware of tension and fatigue in your muscles. It’s often a good idea to start from the head and work down, giving each area or group of muscles your attention. If you notice tension, try to focus on a cue word, such as ‘relax’ or ‘easy’ and try to let the tension flow out of the muscles.
There may be times when you feel overwhelmed, both in training and on race day. Accepting that there will be bad training days and bad miles along each run is the starting point to managing this.
Notice Your Progress
Regularly review your progress and notice how you are improving, whether this is enhanced respiration, better running technique, improved mood, or a sense of accomplishment and pride. Acknowledging our minor improvements helps us realize we are one day closer to keeping our commitment to ourselves. And with regular analysis of your progress, you can adapt your goal and approach race day confident in the belief that you can achieve it.
One Mile at a Time
The marathon distance can be overwhelming and focusing on how long you have left to go is pointless. Focus on what you can do in the current mile to make running easier on your body and mind. Break up your run into manageable chunks and give each of these a particular focus. Tick off each milestone as it passes by and don’t look too far ahead. Look at what is within your control right now, and focus on the process, not the outcome. Remember, winning or losing isn’t running, only running is running!
Run your Own Race
Although it can be helpful to identify some runners to pace yourself against, it is important to run your own race. Remember, if someone overtakes you, it does not matter; you are not here to be that person. Remind yourself that they are doing their own thing and you will do yours. Concentrate on maintaining your pace and form, and the competitors around you. Beware of the highly curated images of happy runners on social media, and avoid getting wrapped up in a cycle of comparing yourself with others.
What is Your Body Saying?
While you are running, focus on feeling really connected with your body. Research has shown that elite marathon runners use an associative strategy which helps them run better. Throughout the race, pay very close attention to breathing pattern, stride, foot strike, cadence, posture and any tension or muscle fatigue. Be aware of any sensations you notice in your feet, calves and thighs. When you're in tune with your body, you tend to run with better form, have better arm swing, and maintain pace – all things that can allow you to run stronger.
Time Not Pace
Research also found that whereas elite athletes pay close attention to time, they let their pace be governed by reading their bodies. By motoring their bodily sensations, the athletes are able to adjust their pace, respiration and technique. This enables them to avoid pain.
Focus on external data relating to the run. This includes things like looking for mile markers, road signs or feed stations along the route, checking your watch for pace, lap time, heart rate and any other complex measurements you have access to.
Form Good Habits
In order to meet your goals, your body needs to be physically prepared to take on the challenge. Attend to the basics, ensuring you get good sleep, hydration and nutrition. Build mental toughness by exposing yourself to stress through regular long runs, consistent workouts, progressive mileage and regular racing. And save psychological stress by making these behaviours non-negotiable habits.
Plan Your Day
Much of the marathon anxiety comes from runners not being organised and becoming overwhelmed by logistics. Know in advance your pre-race breakfast, your race day clothing, your food, drink and gadgets, and everything else that is important for you on race day. Plan your journey to the race, figure out how long it takes to get there, what public transport is available or where you will park.
Be Your Own Psychologist
Develope the habit of incorporating sport psychology into every training run to help reduce anxiety and improve performance on race day. Because all the skills I talk about here are based on sports psychology, cognitive behavioural therapy, hypnotherapy, mindfulness and meditation processes, they each affect the way you run and how you approach running and training. Your mind needs repetition to remember things, so you can reinforce these skills through self-hypnosis. You can record yourself talking through the messages you want to retain, or download a session created by a professional hypnotherapist.
If you want to try hypnotherapy to improve your marathon performance, we have created a self-hypnosis audio specificaly designed to enhance your training and running. Click here to find out more: