Ask the Experts: Marathon Mental Strength Q&A with Dr Victor Thompson

Catch the highlights from Friday's lunchtime debate, when ASICS Target 26.2 psychologist Dr Victor Thompson answered your questions about achieving your goal in your spring marathon

Q. Can you recommend any mental strategies to help deal with the taper or on the day? Emmy_bug

A. Your taper should inspire confidence, not anxiety. You have done the training, followed a plan and backed-off (tapered) in the build-up to the event. You are more rested, fresh, recovered and ready for the long run (marathon).

As the excitement builds, you notice plenty of nervous energy, and rediscovered bounciness. Remind yourself of how prepared you are, how ready you will be due to the taper, knowing you can now give it your best, as you’re no longer fatigued from all the mileage you have been doing. Bring it on!

Plus, on race day, know that you are well prepared because of the training you have done. Know that your preparation has been good, not perfect - no one has a perfect preparation, you don’t need one, just good enough. Think about how you plan to run, in terms of pacing, focus and nutrition. Notice how the nerves feel good, they are normal, everyone has them. Enjoy the day

Q. How do you keep your motivation up during long training runs? I'm at the toughest point now in preparation for the Edinburgh Marathon and some days it's tough with a full-time job, college and family life. I want to train but my brain keeps telling me I'm tired. How do I get out and keep going? Merilin

A. You will be tired from all the running, plus other aspects of life to fit in (a job etc). You’ll feel knackered in the heavy training period of marathon preparation. However, your mind will trick you into thinking you are too tired to train and that it’s best to take it easy and put your feet up.

There are problems with this. You can nearly always complete your session once you start. If you take it easy and put your feet up, you will no doubt experience guilt and regret. Instead, remind yourself why you are doing this marathon, why you chose to do it, why it will be good to do it, how the training will help, how enduring the tired days will be helpful, how it can build mental strength etc.

Perhaps you’ll want to think of those people who doubt you, who think you are soft or who may be hoping to beat you on the day. Use what worked for you in the past, and it will probably help you now to dig deep and get out there to complete sessions.

Other tips include putting your running shoes and kit right where you’ll see them, so you have to really avoid them if you aren’t going go out on your run. Or, train with others for part or all of the run. This could involve a friend cycling as you run, providing company, chat and commitment to get out there at a certain time.

The exception to this advice is if you are developing an overtraining problem (chronic under-recovery and risking long-term problems) then backing-off is sensible.

Q. What’s the best way to get over a bad marathon? I ran VLM last year and I had an awful race, finishing almost an hour below my target time, despite training well. It took me months before I could apply myself to run more than a mile at a time.

I wasn't really injured afterwards, I just felt like there was a mental barrier to overcome because of the negative experience I had during the race. How can I prevent significant post-marathon fallouts happening again?

Ivy Mike - I'm in the same position as you, I sprained my ankle six weeks ago. It was devastating but I chose to pull out this year and defer my place. It's not ideal, but I tried to turn it into a positive and thought about all the training I can do over the rest of the year to improve my fitness come the race next year. Tempo Tom

A. The marathon is so important to those of us who enter it. We’ve put a lot of effort into the training and a lot of thought into it. We’ve made sacrifices with our time. So, if it goes poorly (according to our own judgement) then it can be gutting.

Post-marathon blues are common. Not everyone crosses the line ecstatic, proud or even satisfied. To reduce the likelihood this will reoccur, I suggest you set the three levels of goals I encourage everyone I work with to set, both elites and amateurs.

These are:

1. Dream: If everything goes absolutely brilliantly what can I achieve (still based on the real world though).

2. Realistic: If I experience a few challenges, but deal with them well and have a pretty good day, what can I achieve.

3. Acceptable: If I have a nightmare day and it’s a real struggle, perhaps my legs just aren’t working very well, an injury develops or something else happens, I want to do my best. This may include stopping, slowing, walking, toughing it out or another aim. No matter what, I will accept myself and my decisions no matter how bad it gets, whether I finish or not.

Commit to these three levels of goals, so you can go for it and do really well and be happy, but if it goes wrong, you will find it easier to walk away with your head held high, ready to face the next running challenge sooner, rather than later.

Regarding the ankle injury, it sounds like you are managing well. No matter how well we try to train and look after ourselves, sometimes injuries just seem to happen. Once injured, your position changes and it’s time to review your plan and training/exercise.

The focus shifts from upping the training plan to sorting out the injury, becoming more robust and if possible cleverer in your training. By doing this you will come back to compete another day, hopefully better than before. Plus your training and competitions will seem all the sweeter after a forced off-period.

Q. Similar to the above, I'd be interested in your thoughts specifically on calming nerves and getting more sleep. I don't get this much now but I certainly used to and I imagine it's a common problem. At what point should one take medication? Tmap

A. Poor sleep the night before the marathon is common and normal. Evidence from elite sport, with Olympic medal winners, shows sleep the night before (and two nights before) has no measurable impact performance. So, for us non-elites, it’s hardly likely to have an impact either.

The day and night before should be restful. Take it easy. Follow a normal type of day, just a bit easier than you are used to. At night, follow a similar routine. If you go to bed normally at 11pm, don’t expect to go to bed at 9pm and fall asleep. Got to bed at the usual time. Consider sleep a bonus and rest as being important.

If you can’t sleep, don’t fight it, or it will be more difficult to come by. Let your mind wander onto boring or somewhat interesting topics unrelated to the marathon. If you are tossing and turning, unable to sleep, consider getting up and having a hot (non-caffeinated) drink and reading a book or magazine.

Q. Do you have any effective visualisation techniques you can suggest? Ed_Zep

A. Visualisation, or imagery, helps you to rehearse how the marathon will go and how you will deal with certain challenges. Imagine running the race according to your race plan. Imagine getting through the tough periods and doing what will help you. Imagine how good it will be to finish, how you will be proud and how you will have done yourself justice however the event unfolds.

Q. I completed my second marathon in September. I was really looking forward to it and I achieved a PB but not quite my set target. I loved it anyway as it was in my hometown Berlin.

Unfortunately, ever since then I have hit a massive wall. I’ve picking up every virus going around and due to my poor health, my fitness level is at its worst. How can I pick myself up and regain confidence? I’m not entirely sure where or when but I have completely lost my mojo. Nicole Martin 3

A. Ensure that you are recovered, or at least able to do some training (you don’t want to risk a relapse).

Accept that you are now at a different level to your Berlin PB days, so you’ll need to adjust your sights and expectations as well.

Consider changing your focus from times, pacing and distance to running experience for a few weeks at least. Run when you want, as long as you want and as fast as you want. Simply try to get back to fitness, enjoying it, without taking too much out of yourself physically.

After at least a month or two, consider if a more structured approach to training is due, or delay this for a while.

Dr Victor Thompson Asics Pro Team: Thanks again for all your questions. I wanted to return to the forum to answer the ones that you had submitted, but that I hadn't managed to get to on Friday.

For all of you doing the VLM - have a great one. Enjoy it (yes, really). Do yourself proud. It's important, but after all, it is still only a run (plus maybe some walking). So try to keep the event in perspective, so you have a greater chance of doing well, having a good day, and walking away with your head held high

Best of luck to all of you, but don't leave it to chance:

Plan your race weekend,

Talk (internally) nice and helpfully to yourself

And, well done on going out there and testing yourself

You can check out my other tips on the Runners World site or on my website

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