If you’re training for a long race this spring, such as a marathon, by now you may be over the 10-mile mark or running for over two hours. At this point, it’s easy to feel daunted. Distance running can be a lonely pursuit and there’s also the risk of self-doubt creeping in and that negative voice in your head that pipes up when you’re feeling tired, unhelpfully telling you to stop.
Developing the right mindset during long runs and using various tactics will help you keep going when you feel tired, or when self-doubt creeps in. Here’s how to manage your mind during those long runs and keep boredom and self-doubt at bay…
1. Know your motivation
“Ask yourself: ‘What’s the reason behind you doing this run?’” suggests Philip Clarke, a Lecturer of Psychology at the University of Derby. “If you’re doing a long run and you get to a point where you want to stop, you’re going to have that internal battle. Get into a rhythm. Not many people have that ability to keep putting one foot in front of the other and keep going. Get that strong reason for why you’re doing what you’re doing and know that you made the decision to do it and it’s something you want to achieve. Use the emotion associated with that thought. It will drive you through.”
2. Don’t set off too fast
You’re going to be running for a long time, so take it easy and listen to your body. Running at a sensible, sustainable pace is important to train the right energy system to get you fit for race day. You want to be training the aerobic system during a long run, which is the energy system that fuels endurance running. So it needs to be targeted during training. The pace should feel comfortable and you should be able to talk fairly easily if you have someone running with you.
3. Focus on your race-day goal
Running coach George Anderson (runningbygeorge.com) is currently training for ultra-marathon Endure 24. “I spent a recent long run thinking about what I want to get out of my ultra-marathon experience,” he says. “For me, ultra running is 20% physical and 80% mental.”
4. Work on your mental muscle
“Think of your brain as a muscle,” says Clarke. “Like any muscle, to develop it you’re going to have to work on it. Be mindful of what works for you and what doesn’t. It’s about understanding what you say to yourself and the impact it has on you mentally, as well as restructuring your doubts into something more effective.”
5. Believe in your strategy
The best mental strategy for staying motivated during long runs is one you believe in. Positive mantras can work well for some people. WR regular Lisa Jackson, who has completed 107 marathons, uses the mantra: “I am fit, I am strong, I can run this marathon.” “If you believe they can work they can,” says Clarke. “If you use them and don’t believe them, they’re not going to work. Not if you don’t have that conviction. If on the other hand you have got a strong belief that something is going to work, then the brain is an incredibly powerful tool.”
6. Don’t think too far ahead
When you know you’re going to be running for a long time, it’s easy to worry at the start about how you might be feeling in 10, 15 or even 20 miles. Focus on being in the moment. “Being out there by yourself and knowing there’s an hour or more left to run can be a big challenge for some people,” says Anderson. “I try to focus on my body, my breathing, on relaxing, and being aware of the world around me at that point. Mantras such as ‘relax’ or ‘have patience’ work really well for me and I stop worrying about what’s to come.”
7. Banish negative self-talk
When I ran the Brighton Marathon, a negative inner voice crept in at mile nine, when I was tackling a hill. “I’m hot and I hate hills” repeatedly ran through my head. The more I heard it the more fatigued I became. Fortunately, I noticed the link between negative talk and my fatigue, so I told myself to shut up! I then started a new sentence in my head: “You’ve done the training. You can do this.” My energy levels improved and I had a great race experience. Acknowledge that negative self-talk is creeping in, stop it and replace it with something positive.
“The body will achieve what the mind believes,” says ultra runner Martin Kelly, an ambassador for Herbalife (herbalife.co.uk). “Being able to acknowledge there will be tough times, accept them and know you will come through them enables you to achieve your goal.”
8. Enter shorter races as part of your training
“Shorter races can be used as a means of completing your long run,” says Professor John Brewer, Head of School of Sport, Health and Applied Science (SHAS) at St Mary’s University (stmarys.ac.uk). “Many runners will enter half-marathons and 20-mile races and simply use them as training runs rather than races. The other runners, the marshals and the crowds will make it much easier than running on your own.”
9. Make the most of your environment
Try a different, more scenic route, so that you constantly have interesting things to see, like nature and animals. “Choose a different route to one you are familiar with,” says Brewer. “Focus on the external environment or planning things not related to running.”
10. ‘Chunk’ your run
This is a tactic that has worked very well for distance runner and Olympic gold medallist Jo Pavey, who breaks her long runs and marathons into small chunks. “I use mini goals, and focus on my breathing and the rhythm of my legs.” Mentally tick each section off in your head, one at a time.
11. Use your long run to plan your race-day strategy
“Runs of two hours or more are often with a specific goal in mind, such as a half or full marathon, so use them to plan your race-day strategy,” says Brewer. “Visualise the finish and the completion of your goal. You can try alternating ‘zoning in’ – thinking about how your body is feeling and responding to the run – with ‘zoning out’.”
12. Give yourself some credit!
“Remind yourself of the good it is doing you in terms of both performance and health,” says Brewer. “By completing the run you will be part of just a small minority of the population capable of doing so. Remind yourself how great you will feel when you have finished, and how bad you will feel if you quit before the end. But, of course, if you feel pain from an injury, listen to your body and stop if necessary.”