The Mental Side of Marathon Running

So much of this marathon running thing is mental, and I don’t mean that it’s nuts.

Physical strength and the ability to move yourself forward with your body is obviously an important part of the sport. Without strong muscles, elastic tendons and a heart and lungs that efficiently move oxygenated blood around to fuel them, you won’t be able to run very far or very fast.

But in addition to the physical side, the brain plays a big role in running.

When everything is going your way and you’re running well on a personal best pace, staying positive is a pretty easy task. But keeping a positive attitude when things start going bad is a different story. That switch in attitude can turn an average day into a bad day in a real hurry.

Tough day in Ottawa

At the Ottawa Marathon things started off pretty well for me. But around the halfway point I found myself slowing falling back from the 3:30 pace group and the negative thoughts crept in. From there it got dark…I couldn’t will myself to keep pushing, despite the fact that I was still on personal best pace. I had given up on the run and defeated myself 25km in.

Running over the Alexandra Bridge, I knew that getting back into a better place mentally would be job one. I also knew from experience that spectators can help you out, but even better is a good running buddy to help you talk through what you’re feeling.

I was fortunate that day to have both. I saw Ginny and the kids at 27km and had a brief chat about my race. I resolved to finish it and get my medal when I saw them. After that I found myself running with Ashley from Team Awesome and we shared a runners’ therapy session over the next 10km.

I didn’t run a PB in Ottawa…not even close. But I finished and enjoyed the rest of the race for what it was — my ninth full marathon on a very hot day in a great city, with thousands of fellow runners and tens of thousands of spectators cheering us on.

Thinking of what Rob Watson said

Over the last few kilometres in Ottawa, I thought about an interview I’d watched with Rob Watson after his run in the London Marathon a few months back. He’s one of the top Canadian runners and I admire him the most because of his willingness to share his experiences regardless of how things go.

In London, Rob was trying to run 2:12:50 in order to qualify for the Olympics in Rio.

The thing that struck me most about the interview was that he wanted to quit when he realized a Rio qualifier wasn’t going to happen. Here’s a world class marathoner who, like me, had to talk himself out of quitting when his race went sideways. I realized that just like every other runner out there, the key for him was that he turned his attitude around by thinking about all the positives of the day.

For Rob that included the fact that he loves the running community and realizes just how fortunate he is to be able to run London and compete at this level.

My favourite mood changers

Out on the long run it can get very lonely and when it’s just you and your own thoughts, it can be difficult to stay positive. Here’s some of the tricks I use when the going gets tough:

  • Think of the good times – remember back to a PB race day, or think about that time you had an awesome run that felt so easy. Often you can trick your brain into feeling better about your current run.
  • Get help from your buddy – if you are running with a friend, or in a group, let them know you’re stuck in a funk. Often a little trash talk or some commiseration about how things are going can be just the ticket to turning things around.
  • Look around you and remember how lucky you are to be a runner – there are neat things to look at on every run whether it’s a training run on your usual route, or a race through a new city. Take your mind off the run, and replace those thoughts with something positive.
  • Smile and run a bit faster – John Stanton from the Running Room taught me this. When you start slowing down and feeling crappy about your run, just pick up the pace a bit. You’ll often be surprised to find that you have a bit more pace in your legs after all.
  • Sing a new song – I don’t run with headphones, but there’s always a song in my head when I run. Switching songs to something catchy and cheerful can turn things around. If you run with music, keep a power song in your playlist that always brightens your mood. Crank it up!
  • Switch to a new goal – maybe that PB you’ve been training for is out of reach. So what? You’ll have another opportunity to chase it in the future. Flip to your ‘B’ goal if you have one, or come up with a new, more attainable goal on the fly.

Not every day or run is going to be a great one. We all battle some days and these are the runs where we grow as runners. Don’t quit and try to stay positive and you’ll find yourself battling through to the finish.