Marathon Toolkit: Engage your Brain

Finishing a marathon takes huge reserves of mental strength. Sports psychologist Dr Victor Thompson, part of the ASICS PRO Team, shares some of the principles of sports psychology to keep you running strong.

Flick through our slideshow to discover Dr Thompson's eight essential strategies - and log onto the forum this Friday (April 13) at 1pm to ask him your race strategy questions in our live webchat.

Picture credit: Mads Abildgaard/Getty Images

Mind over marathon

Your mind is very powerful - it’s probably the biggest determinant in whether you hit your target or not. If you don’t manage your mind well, it can be very negative and it can be the equivalent of the wheels coming off the bus. What goes through your mind, and how you manage and direct those thoughts probably has the biggest outcome on your performance.

Picture: Victor discusses race tactics with Paris marathon contenders Lee, Colin and Craig.

Divide and conquer

Divide the race into 4-6 different sections to break it down and make the distance seem more manageable. Any more than six and it will get too confusing. Have a different aim for each segment, so you can feel yourself progressing and so it’s not just about getting halfway or to the finish. This will help maximise your chances of getting to the end in a good condition and on target.

Self-talk success

Be realistic. During a rough period, don’t try to go extremely positive, saying things like, “I’m running as fast as a cheetah” or “I feel amazing,” because right then, if you are feeling more like you’re running with two fridges on your back, your brain will reject the positive statement. Instead, pick something that’s believable and focus on that. You could try, “I’m doing well” or “Good job, keep it up.” Those statements are more believable, helpful and positive in a way that your brain can accept.

Picture credit: Chris Keegan

Find your focus

You may find it helpful to remind yourself why you’re running a race: to finish, to hit a certain time, to raise money for charity. When you are in the midst of the event, you can get overloaded and stressed by lots of things and forget why you chose to do the event in the first place. 

Remember why you’re there and what you want out of it, so you can maximise your opportunities and not leave achieving your goal to chance.

Picture: Discover the aims of our spring marathon contenders (see left), from a PB to a first marathon.

Progress check

Check your progress regularly depending on your aim.  If you’re running the race to get round and enjoy the carnival atmosphere (especially at the VLM), check your watch every few miles. If you’re aiming for a specific time, it’s a good idea to check at every mile split to see if you’re hitting the right pace – or if you’ll need to adjust the target.

Consider writing on your hand what your mile splits should be, and what different splits mean for your overall time. For most of us, it just isn’t possible to do these computations in our heads when the pressure is on during the race.

There’s a difference between being focused on your target and being obsessed – there’s no need to keep checking your GPS or watch every 200m.

Picture credit: R M STEELE/ Getty Images

Wisdom v weakness

If the race isn’t going to plan, don’t keep pushing yourself at a pace you can’t sustain. If an injury is shouting at you to stop or slow down, don’t be afraid to listen. I’m not saying that you should slow down or wimp out at the first opportunity, but be sensible and review the situation as it unfolds.

If something negative does happen, assess the situation and set a new goal or target. There’s little point getting a PB for the first 15 miles, then having to walk the rest. There’s a difference between mental weakness and wisdom.

It’s more brave and wise to assess the situation honestly and refocus, even if that means backing off and being fit enough to return to battle another day, rather than knackering yourself for months or years.

A marathon plan: the first half

Each person is different and everyone has different marathon aims, but here’s a guide to how you could divide your race:

Miles 0-5/6: You’ll be quite excited and there’s going to be a lot of adrenaline, stress and a lot of buzz. Try not to go off too hard and hold back a bit (most people go off a bit hard and pay in the last six miles). Settle in and stick to the pace you planned.

Miles 6-11: Check how you’re feeling physically. Focus on your technique – run smoothly or lightly or find an aim that might help.

Miles 11-15: Think about your pace – are you on target? Do you need to adjust up or down? By this stage, you’ll have a good idea of how the body feels. It might be a case of continuing with what you’re doing or trying to up it a little or take it down a notch or two.

Picture credit: Mitchell Funk/Getty Images

A marathon plan: the second half

Miles 15-20: These are the tough miles. Now it’s time for your mind to be kind, positive and encouraging. Imagine you’ve got a little coach sitting on your shoulder – a very helpful coach, not a critical one. Tell yourself: “I’m doing a good job, this is good, hang on in there, this is what it’s all about” - phrases like that work as they’re direct, positive and helpful.

Miles 20-23: This shorter chunk is all about persevering. You know you can do this shorter stretch, you’ve already proved your endurance; now just get through it. If you need a distraction think about where the course is going next and the sights you’ll see.

Miles 23-26.2: The final phase. Remember why you’re running the race and try to contain the pace, so you get to the finish in one piece. Visualise how you’re going to finish – are you going to jump in the air or risk a cartwheel. Focus on what the marathon has meant for you and how you’ve done yourself proud.