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

Dr Victor Thompson is a sports psychologist, as well as a keen triathlete who has represented Great Britain and Ireland. In 2005 he raced for Ireland at the Triathlon World Championships in Hawaii and in 2010 and 2011 he finished 11th in his age-group at the European Triathlon Championships.

This spring, he joins us as part of the ASICS Target 26.2 PRO Team, working with our five spring marathon contenders as they prepared for the Paris Marathon on April 15.

Read the whole forum debate and catch up with more of Victor’s spring marathon tips.

Q. I'm making my marathon debut at the VLM and I have ignored all the sensible advice about not focusing on a time and simply enjoying the day.

I suspect it's too late now to undo my neurosis about pacing. What troubles me is I suspect I'll get wound up about the crowds and slower runners, and waste lots of energy weaving and getting cross in the first few miles. Do you have any advice? Hilden Bro

A. This is a common challenge – not getting caught up in the stress, excitement and melee at the start of the marathon. Here’s your three point plan:

1. Accept that it will be busy and people will be in your way. That is part of the big marathon experience.

2. Decide to ride this section out, it will pass, don’t fight it (or other runners!), try to be as calm and chilled as possible.

3. Recognise that there is a temptation with all the adrenaline pumping to go off too hard, but if you do, there is a very high chance of crashing and burning, so hold back at first.

Work out what will help you enjoy the day (do this this week, well before race day), as this is your stated goal.

Q. I'm a first-time marathoner who has missed almost five weeks of training due to injury. I’m still going to do the VLM, with a run-walk plan and absolutely no time ambitions, just the desire to finish. Understandably, I'm worried about my lack of long runs and have no idea how to prepare for the later stages of the race.

I've been reading about the importance of positive thinking. I’ve read about creating a mental 'video' of myself running well and crossing the finish line. Are there any other simple ways I can boost my confidence and quell my nerves? Black And Tabby

A. Thanks for your question. Unfortunately, many runners end up having a compromised build-up to the race with injury or life getting in the way. It’s important you first have a sensible plan of how you will ‘play’ the event: your pacing, your nutrition and your focus.

If you feel shocking towards the end of the event and end up walking, then there is little point in having a rehearsed image of you running fleet-footed, fast, gazelle or cheetah-like. This will be too far away from your actual experience of shuffling towards the finish.

Instead, think about what will help you get through the tougher times, what will help you push, persevere and endure? Who inspires you? Why are you doing the event? When have you shown courage to yourself or others?

Or, if it is a good choice to walk, how will you accept this, and then will you walk normally or at a fast pace?

Imagine these scenarios: how you will feel, how you will react, what you will do, and how things will work out fine for you.

Oh, and nerves are normal, because it is an important day to you, you will face challenges and there is uncertainty. Expect nerves. They will build in the lead up to the race, then dissolve once the run starts.

Q. If there was only one piece of advice you could give, what would it be and why? I ask this because I know from past marathons when you're really tired your brain goes to mush, and it's really difficult to think straight. Runbird

A. Wow, what a question! Okay, my one piece of advice is: cultivate in training and use on marathon day a calm, helpful, directive, positive inner-voice or self-talk. I liken this to the perfect coach. He or she who knows exactly what to say to you at any time to keep you going, running well, enjoying the challenge, soaking up the experience or making the most of the event.

Q. I'm a first-time marathoner who's running the Edinburgh Marathon. I've done a 20-mile race as part of my training, but I’m struggling to fit in long runs (15 miles +) with work and family commitments. Will it be as effective to do several shorter runs (for example 10 miles)? Pamela Bruce

A. There is a balance between quality and quantity. Yes, mileage is important, but so too is mileage run at the right pace and doing what you think is relevant for the marathon. So, short, or long runs done when you’re saying to yourself, “this is too short, too slow, too hilly, too fast,” or whatever, will only lead you to believe on race day that you aren’t prepared, you’ll have lower confidence and more stress. Therefore, it probably will lead to a poorer event. So, do what you can, do what you think is most relevant and see how it is helping you prepare for the day.

Q. How do you suggest people deal with the fact they might not get a PB in their distance again? I'm very competitive and did very well in 2009, but now I can't seem to get that edge back and I’m finding it depressing.

I'm 41 now, how can I change my mindset to still enjoy racing? I've never been one to 'just enjoy the experience'. Kittenkat

A. Thanks for your question. This is a tricky one for the runner. Early in our running careers performance increases, times tumble and things are good. Then we start to plateau and this is a testing time.

I recommend that you see this as a challenge – to manipulate your training and to try to be better prepared. Have a race plan for the day that covers pacing, nutrition, and your focus during the event.

Ensure your attitude is to see the day as a challenge, something to rise to, to do your best at and to see what happens. Your body is slightly different day to day, with lots of changes, so you never know exactly what you have to show on race day. The goal is to do your best, and if you have done this, you can be satisfied no matter what time you get. Plus, this strategy will also maximise the chances of getting a new PB!

Q. What are your tips for maintaining motivation when it starts to flag?

Generally I am okay, but I’ve had two bad races where my mind took matters into its own hands and I stopped running. Physically I could have run, but mentally, the fact that conditions weren't quite right (temperature/crowds) led to despair that couldn’t be overcome.

So, how can I give myself a good talking to and motivate myself to keep going when it gets tough? Gladrags

A. Consider ahead of the race:

- How you will manage the event so this challenge is unlikely to develop. If it is to develop, how will you spot it early (e.g. signs of fatigue, negative self-talk)?

- What can you do to manage it if it develops, so you continue to press on, hold your pace and be okay with the challenge. This may be a combination of helpful self-talk or statements which remind you of your strategy and goal etc. Perhaps you can recall what has helped you to tough it out before in races or life.

Q. This is more a question about 'not racing' than racing. I was supposed to be running the Brighton Marathon on Sunday. However, I picked up an injury to my foot at the start of my taper, which is going to put me out of action for at least six weeks. I'm pretty gutted and feeling a bit down as my training had gone really well. Do you have any words of wisdom? Kylie Coulter

A. Surely it is the wisest man who backs off, retreats and then comes back to battle (or racing) fitter and better prepared? This is better than ploughing through with an injury and following a programme or plan, only to end up being unable to run for months or even ever again.

Accept that stuff (or insert expletive) just happens. Review what went well and not so well in training. What, if anything, may have led to your injury? Why is it good now to back off and recover? What can you do with your extra time now; cross-training, other activities, meeting friends, reading? How will you stage your comeback, in terms of training and racing, now that you are more experienced and wiser?

You will come back fitter and stronger.

Q. I'm in a similar situation to Kylie above. I also picked up an injury to my right ankle six weeks ago and it has seriously affected my training since then. With London in a week’s time, things do not look great. I’m seeing a specialist this afternoon to try to get a definitive diagnosis, but I fear the ‘do not run for xx weeks’ line. I’ll be devastated if this is the case. How do I deal with this? I have tried to learn to love swimming and cycling, but it's just not cricket, I mean, running! Ivy Mike

A. Ivy Mike, like for Kyle above, if you have to take time out and have to pull out of the race, see this as a good decision, a phase, something that you will bounce back from. Fighting it will only bring you more stress, then you’ll have to accept it later anyway.

Q. I have a first timer’s question. I’ve only trained to 20 miles and now the extra six loom quite large (and seem to be getting larger). It’s not helped by the fact that people say half the race battle is to get to 20 miles, then it really begins. I know I need to treat the marathon with respect, but that extra six is beginning to look harder and longer every time I think about it.

I'm slightly worried over-thinking the whole thing is making me become ever more conservative in my aims. Half-marathon and 20-mile races indicate I should be able to get approximately 4:40, but in my head I'm now worrying and thinking I should aim for sub-5:00 so I don't blow everything. Do you have any advice for how I can get those little voices in my head to be on my side for a change? DL

A. So the last six miles is like another 20, eh? What if it’s like 50, 40, 30, 10, 6, 3, 2 or 1? If you predict it will be massive distance or a nightmare, then it is likely to be.

What about double marathon runners or ultra runners, how do they experience miles 20 to 26, 45 to 50, or 56 to 62? Yes, you will be more tired towards the end as your body has done more work by then. However, is the fatigue due to expectation, not enough carbs (a caffeinated gel at mile 18 anyone?) or poor pacing?

Regarding times, consider your training, form and ability. Many people go off to hard and blow their race in the first 30 minutes, whilst others are too conservative and wonder at the finish if they should have pushed themselves a bit more. Pick a good pace for you, review it every five miles or more often, keep on top of energy levels and enjoy the challenge.

On the next page: Move on from negative marathon experiences, control race-day nerves and more.