Mental training for a marathon: Part 1 of 2

Posted by David Asp, Ed.D.
July 22, 2013

Typically, training for a marathon means staying physically active to develop muscles that prepare you for the grueling 26.2 miles you’ll face. Most athletes spend a tremendous amount of time preparing for a marathon by physically preparing their bodies. However, what coaches and athletes often overlook is the mental aspect of performance – even though the importance of mental training has been realized for years. 

Most experts in the field know the importance of mental training. Roger Bannister, the first person to break the four minute barrier (running a mile under four minutes), said, “It is the brain, not the heart or lungs that is the critical organ.”  

Mental barriers

No athlete, no matter how strong or physically gifted, can be successful if they have mental barriers, such as low confidence or nerves that overtake them in the heat and competition. Often, mental barriers are why many athletes do well in training only to cave when it comes to actual race or game situations. Cindra Kamphoff, Ph.D. at Minnesota State University, found that common mental barriers of runners were things like self doubt, high anxiety and feeling too much pressure.

Over thinking occurs when a runner shifts their focus from process goals (What am I doing now to maximize my performance or effort?) to outcome issues (What if I don’t finish? What if I get passed?), which leads to anxiety, doubt and distraction. Mental strategies help athletes set realistic and challenging goals that include flexibility.

Strategies for success

Fortunately, there are strategies that athletes can practice to overcome mental roadblocks and promote a successful performance. Mental approaches like relaxation techniques, positive self talk, focus plans, visualization and choking/panicking strategies can help an athlete confront mental barriers and trust their training to maintain confidence. Mental strategies encourage athletes to expect race discomfort, embrace it as an ally and use discomfort as valuable information (Am I working hard enough? Should I adjust body position? Etc.) 

Using mental strategies helps athletes focus on the process of performance rather than outcome issues (winning or losing, other competitors). This encourages runners to not over think.   

Goal flexibility allows individuals to adjust when needed and helps athletes to not get frustrated or down on themselves. Visualization, for instance, helps athletes practice seeing themselves performing well in a race situation, and assists in preparing for any unforeseen situations and making adjustments. Lastly, mental strategies encourage positive thought management. Many individuals have a well-developed “internal critic.”  It’s that well-practiced thought pattern that is highly critical, lowers a sense of self-worth, creates fear and hinders athletes from performing at their best. 

Mental training is finding key words, images and thoughts to combat the inaccurate “internal critic” and positively reframe if negative thoughts develop.

In an upcoming edition of this blog, I will outline specific mental strategies that runners can use to enhance their performance and enjoyment of the Mankato Marathon.

Read more: Mental training for a marathon: Part 2 of 2


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Comments (1)

This is a very interesting topic! As an athlete who has ran marathons, practice judo and studies mental health, I find that being able to focus in the moment of training as well as in the moment of competition very important to one's success. Great article, can't wait to read more.

Dileimy - 07/23/2013


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