Updated 11 February 2015

Mind games for marathon runners

When the going gets tough, it’s time to engage your brain. The Sports Science Institute's mental squad reveals their top 10 mental tricks for mastering the Two Oceans Marathon.

If you're a runner you'll know that your mind is a very important tool in completing any distance. These tips and tricks can help you break those mental barriers that may be keeping you from reaching your personal best when you run.

With the Two Oceans Marathon coming up, use the following tips to strengthen your mind for the race:

1. Do your homework
“True confidence comes only from being properly prepared – that’s the bottom line,” says Clinton Gahwiler, a sports psychologist at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa (SSISA).

Aside from physical training, this means doing your homework about the route, says Lindsey Parry, the head sport scientist at The High Performance Centre Pretoria University, Triathlon South Africa’s national coach and the official Comrades coach.

“Pre-race, determine what you can expect on race day such as the likely environmental conditions – and minimise the things that can go wrong that are within your control. For example, what nutrition is available, where you chafe, and so on,” he says.

2. Plot a race plan
Create a race plan that’s based on a realistic expectation of what you can achieve. “Start out conservatively and ensure that you know where you need to be on the course within certain times and what pace you should be running through certain sections,” says Parry. “You don’t want to be thinking about pace every kilometre, so break the race into sections.”

Many runners write their time splits on their arms, says Chet Sainsbury, the former Two Oceans race director and Two Oceans Blue Number 214.

“I break the Two Oceans Ultra into 10km splits and average 6 minutes per kilometre (he’s 70 now!). Your running pace plan is important – stick to it at all times. Know and understand your goals – and be realistic,” he adds.

3. Have a Plan B
Adopt a flexible mindset, says Renée Scott, a former Springbok triathlete who’s completed 11 Two Oceans Ultras and claimed two Comrades gold medals.

“If you’re short of mileage or are slightly injured, then mental preparation is more difficult. You may have to change your goal to one of just finishing the race. Or, if the wind blows on race day, your split times may go out the window. With a plan B in place, you can remain focused.”

4. Get into The Zone
Work through your race a number of times in your mind, including during training, Parry advises.

“Simulate situations during training that’ll elicit a similar level of effort and discomfort as race day so that you can mentally gear up for the good and tough moments,” he says. “Also, picture the final 100m of your race over and over, building the feeling of success. Seeing it in your mind’s eye makes it real, calms you down and keeps you focused.”

Visualisation helps her relax and get into ‘the zone’ in the week leading up to race day, says Dianne McEwan, a top professional triathlete who came fourth in last year’s Ironman. “This entails cutting out any negative thoughts or fears and visualising myself in the event feeling strong and in control,” she says.

Kathy McQuaide, a sports scientist and the Strategic, Marketing and Relationship Manager at SSISA, who’s completed 11 Two Oceans Ultras and 6 Comrades, prepares her mind for the worst and secretly hopes for the best. “I calm myself down by knowing that this is just a race – that my life doesn’t depend on it,” she says.

5. Beat pre-race stress
Ensure you’re well rested so you’re not mentally shattered, advises Parry. “It’s usually impossible to sleep well the night before a race, so ensure that you sleep well two to three nights before.”
You don’t want to be scurrying around like a headless chicken trying to find your kit on race morning, so organise it all the night before, advises Sainsbury.

“Preferably get dropped off at the start, as then you don’t have to worry about parking and a long walk to the start,” says Scott.

Excitement at the start is good but don’t let it cause you to fly off at a fast pace. “Talk your nerves down by visualising the finish and by reminding yourself of all the training and successful races you’ve already completed,” says Parry. “Don’t become too anxious once the gun goes off and you’re stuck dealing with a high volume of runners. Plan ahead and give yourself a buffer to allow for the time lost.”

6. Live in the moment
What’s important during the event is not to judge any factors – controllable or uncontrollable – or yourself, says Gahwiler.

“Rather, just see things as they are – the wind, the heat and so on. Your job is not to ensure the perfect day – you can’t – but rather to simply make the best of it. No judgement; just observe things as they are, and make the most of them.”

7. Talk to yourself
Chat to other runners to take your mind off agonising about every single kilometre – but talk to yourself too.

“As the race progresses, develop some self-talk or a mantra,” says Parry. “Last year, my daughter was going to be born in June; I knew I’d never be that fit again, so my mantra was her name. At Two Oceans 2011, I used “Keep moving!” and pictured myself as Pacman and all the people ahead of me as the balls I needed to eat. I also imagined I was a snow plough – weird but it worked.”

“I always tell myself, ‘You can walk once you cross the finish line and you can walk all day tomorrow and the day thereafter, but today you have to keep running!’” relates Scott.

8. Break it down
Stick to your strategy in the latter part of your race, says Sainsbury. “There’s no question of quitting – focus on the hard work you’ve done to get here. If your time goal has gone, forget it and focus on beating the cut-off. At all times, remain positive.”

On a tough day, break the final parts of the race into small chunks and focus only on achieving each short-term goal, advises Parry.

9. Do it for someone else
McQuaide runs each segment for a certain person or group of people close to her heart at the time.

“There’s no way I can quit before getting to the end of my list,” she says. Sainsbury recommends thinking of people who are less physically able in the field – for example, an amputee, or a blind runner.

10. Cue Chariots of Fire
Keep replaying your mental finishing picture as you give the final push, advises Parry.

“When my body is screaming in agony and my mind is interrogating me, I visualise crossing the finish line, feeling victorious in achieving my goal and overcoming the demons that tried to stop me,” says McQuaide.

Read more:

How can I learn to be a long distance runner?
Why people run marathons
5 things every runner should know

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