Christophe Roosen from Trenara running the Valencia Marahton in 2023.

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Mental Preparation for Race Day: Strategies for (Marathon) Runners

Mental Preparation for Race Day: Strategies for (Marathon) Runners

Discover the key to mental preparation for marathon running. Learn visualization techniques, stress management & race day strategies to conquer the psychological challenges and cross the finish line.

Discover the key to mental preparation for marathon running. Learn visualization techniques, stress management & race day strategies to conquer the psychological challenges and cross the finish line.

Christophe Roosen

Christophe Roosen is the co-founder and coach of Trenara. Runs a marathon in 2:31:34.

There’s a lot of science covering the physical preparation of marathon running, but we often forget about the mental preparation. “The body achieves what the mind believes” is not only a motivational gimmick, there’s a truth in it as well. And while making mileage also builds confidence, we want to equip you with some mental techniques as well. When it comes to the mental preparation of marathon running, I'll use my own experience, as an athlete and coach, as well as my courses on sport psychology.

We’re focusing on the marathon, but these techniques will help you with any race distance!

1.     Understanding the Psychological Challenges of a Marathon

After running multiple marathons, I can call myself an experienced marathon runner. But the marathon still puts psychological challenges on me. Self-doubt is certainly one of them: can I, once again, put my body through the stress and eventually pain of running a marathon?

Can I prevent myself from “hitting the wall”? The latter also is related to another typical mental challenge: can I stick to the pacing plan? If things get blurry, will I be able to concentrate on eating & drinking?

Writing this all down, I’m getting a bit anxious myself.

Mental stamina (or mental ‘toughness’) is a crucial factor in delivering a topnotch race day performance. Remember that you will get tired, your legs will get sore and the race will only end when you cross that finish line. But none of these should limit your performance. So, let’s build that mental stamina!

2.      Realistic Goals

When you’re on Instagram or TikTok, you’ve all seen the “One day, or day one? You decide.” posts. It’s as simple as it is true.

Gradually build your physique: don’t aim at running a marathon if you’re just new to the sport. Set a goal that is achievable in 3 to 4 months, not only because it’s physically the right thing to do, but also because this will help with accountability.

Remember: each goal, whether that’s a first 5k or 10 miles or a faster half marathon, is a milestone in itself (which you should celebrate!) and a stepping stone towards ‘the bigger dream’. Setting a timely goal will also help you to build consistency. And when it comes to running, consistency is key.
Running is ‘easy’: you don’t need much gear, nor infrastructure and even just half an hour of running will have a positive physical impact for most of us out there.
But running is also ‘hard’: with each step, you’re exposing your bones & joints to a shock. The ground reaction force is about 2-3x your bodyweight, while the calf muscles will absorb 6-8x times your bodyweight! So… don’t overdo yourself by going from ‘zero to hero’ (where ‘hero’ means: 5 training sessions a week, before getting injured). Choose a training frequency that is feasible for your body + work-life balance and start building consistency from there on. The best marathon training tip for starters? Be patient. Start with mastering a 5k first.

When you set an achievable goal, you won’t feel as stressed when you’re at the starting line. You’ll know you’ve trained for it, that you’ve checked all the boxes. It wasn’t an impulsive decision, not the result of some kind of bet: you’ve prepared yourself well.

3.      Visualization Techniques

I’m a pro at visualization techniques, if I may say so myself. That has nothing to do with following visualization courses, but with running the same course over and over again – I ran the Valencia Marathon already 6 times, so I can quite easily visualize it 😅

How I use visualization as part of my mental preparation?
I imagine myself standing at the start line, feeling the music and the energy from thousands of other runners. I know where the most-crowded parts of the race are, which ‘landmarks’ we will pass and how I might feel at that moment (Plaza de Ayuntamiento: check, 30k, now the hurting really will kick in! - Plaza de Toros: check, 39k, cramping up completely but almost there!). I’m hearing supporters shouting ‘Animo, Christopher!’ from the side of the road (yes, Valencians add the -r to my name).

Like a slalom skier at the start box, I’m taking turns when going through the course in my mind. Beforehand, Loes, my partner, & I have discussed where she will cheer and at what side of the road she will stand. Knowing that point of interest and visualizing it, brings me hyperfocus. I often see Loes before she sees me, because I ‘saw’ her before.

My advice when you know visualization works for you: study the maps the organization offers, check the course via Google Maps. Knowing what to expect helps with reducing (marathon) anxiety.

4.     Developing a Positive Mindset

You can write books about this part, but let’s get very practical.

  • Develop mantras: I’ve done this before, I can do it again. Or: I’ve trained for this, I will succeed.

  • Reframe negative thoughts: there will be moments during training and racing that you’ll be going through a difficult period. Think about all the work that you’ve already done and that this too shall pass.

  • Focus on the last and next thing. Each last ‘thing’ brings you one step closer. Each next ‘thing’ requires focus, so concentrate on that specific task and not on what’s going to happen later on. I often get helpdesk messages from users asking about sessions 3 months down the road… don’t waste that energy. Recover well from the last, so you’re well-prepared for the next. It’s that simple – it really is!
    In sport psychology literature it's called 'setting a process goal': executing each session has worth in itself, related to that end goal, whether or not your 'execution' was 100%. When you approach your training plan and individual training sessions as a process and not as a performance goal, you'll take a lot of stress out of it.

  • Divide and conquer: break the marathon into smaller, more manageable segments like blocks of 5k. Focus on getting through one kilometer/mile at a time rather than the entire race. This can make the race seem less daunting and help maintain a positive focus. I myself have a target pace, but I don’t know the split times for 5k/10k/15k/… I just know that when I split another kilometer at my target pace, I’m on the right way. And luckily enough I never thought: “Djeez, still 40k to go!”.

  • From fixed to growth mindset: having a fixed mindset means you believe that your performance relies (almost solely) on your DNA - you're born with(out) certain limitations. Having a growth mindset implies that you believe that you can develop yourself further and become a better version of yourself through hard work/dedication.
    For example: when I had my achilles injury and, eventually, surgery, the doc wasn't sure I'd be able to run more than 4 times a week (or even run at all). At that time, I had a fixed mindset, I believed my body had imposed a limitation: when you're in pain for several years, you can't believe you'll be able to up the training load without inducing more pain.
    If I wanted to pursue that marathon dream, I had to develop a different mindset, because I knew I had to run more and longer than ever. If I stayed in that fixed mindset, I'd only think about the pain and limits I felt before, which would give too much stress, possibly lead to limited recovery and thus overload.

5.     Stress Management

Running a marathon is a challenge. Although I’m a ‘routinier’, I will never underestimate the distance or the effort we all make to get to that finish line. Let’s all agree to never use a diminutive when it comes to marathon running: respect the distance.

That being said: a challenge shouldn’t equal stress. Arousal: yes, up to a certain level. Stress: no. Because stress does things to our body that I as a coach don’t want to see.

  • Physical impact: stress triggers the release of cortisol, a hormone that, in elevated levels over time, can lead to muscle fatigue, decreased immunity, and increased risk of injury. It can also interfere with sleep patterns, further impairing recovery and performance. Remember: there's no such thing as 'training too much', but there is that thing of 'recovering too little'.

  • Mental impact: high stress levels can diminish concentration, motivation, and confidence, while increasing the likelihood of mental fatigue. This can make training sessions more challenging and affect decision-making and strategy on race day. Stress can be induced by work or private situations that are out of your personal control. And that stress may indeed lead to more challenging training sessions than I had in mind. That's one of the reason why I really wanted an RPE-integration in our training plans.
    Personal anecdote: due to stress I had some bad nights before my VLC marathon in 2021, which led missing kilometer signs during the race (while these are my anchor points) and indeed poor decision-making on when to run in group or when not during a very windy race.

  • Emotional impact: the psychological pressure of training and racing can lead to anxiety, burnout, or even depression, affecting joy and satisfaction derived from running. I joined a T&F club in 1997, at a very young age. Through all the years I was fortunate enough to discover our beloved sport on many levels: as a runner, coach and race organizer. As a coach at the World and European Championships, I saw the emotional impact stress can have on performance. Sometimes positive, often negative. I had talks with other coaches and discovered how words matter. But elaborating on that could be a blog in itself.

6.     Creating a Race Day Strategy

Be a runner with a plan. In Trenara I’m giving some pointers during the preparation phase that can come in handy when creating that race day plan. I’ll suggest to test your energy gels, run on your race day shoes, … but we’ll also do simulation runs at marathon pace so you know what to expect and how to feel. If you’ve calibrated the app well, you’ll be in peak form at the start.

I can’t stress it enough: having a race plan will make a world of difference. You don’t need to be an elite runner to go out with a plan. Check where the aid/drink stations will be, how they will offer water (in a bottle or cup: you’ll notice the difference). Know that carbs are the energy source your body needs to perform, and train to digest 60 to 90gr of carbs per hour. Think about carb loading during the last 2 days pre-race.

Having a plan helps to manage marathon stress and improve performance. Believe me.
But also: be flexible. Weather conditions can change for example, so adapt your strategy if needed.

7.     Conclusion: Mastering the Mental Marathon

The journey to marathon success is as much a mental battle as it is a physical one. "The body achieves what the mind believes" underlines the crucial role of mental preparation. Through setting realistic goals, mastering visualization, fostering a positive mindset, employing stress management, and strategizing for race day, we equip ourselves with the tools necessary for overcoming the marathon's mental challenges. These strategies extend beyond the race, offering lessons in resilience and perseverance applicable to all aspects of life.

Mental stamina is our silent ally, driving us forward when physical strength decreases during the race. As we approach the start line, it's the confidence in our physical AND mental preparation that reassures us of our readiness for the challenge ahead.
And while the best marathon training tip might be: 'just use Trenara!', with this post we also encourage you to look at the mental picture. We’re happy to be at your side in training both the physical as the mental aspect of running!

In closing, remember that the marathon is a testament to the power of mental fortitude. Let your mental preparation guide you through each mile, and may it remind you of your strength, determination, and the profound journey of self-discovery that marathon running represents. Here's to crossing the finish line, empowered not just by the miles you've run, but by the mental barriers you've overcome.

(I think that that's the reason why I still have tears in my eyes when I see Loes after the finish.)

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