Mental Preparation for Training and Running a Marathon

Mental Preparation for Training and Running a Marathon

Preparing for a marathon takes months of training, with intervals, hills, and of course your long slow distance runs.  You know you need to take the proper nutrition before, during, and after your runs and for the race.  You know you need to cross train and stretch.  This is all part of the process of running any race, especially a marathon.  However, most people do not think about getting through those 26.2 miles that they will not only have to conquer on race day but all the miles they will be logging leading up to race day.  If people could take out their brain for running, they probably would. Your mind, (aka your brain) is what is stopping you from reaching those longer distances. As Fitzgerald (2014) explained, “the mind is always a step ahead of the body, as has been shown in numerous studies finding that when athletes quit an exercise test in exhaustion, their muscles remain physically capable of continuing.”  Your mind may think you’re tired because you have run 14 miles already; however, your muscles are just fine.  Hence why it would be a lot easier to get rid of the brain all together for a few hours and pop it back in when you are done your run!  Obviously, that is not possible.  That being said, you cannot forget to train your mind along with your body.

By training your mind, you will be able to overcome the trials and tribulations of running those 26.2 miles.  Fitzgerald states, “It is while you run that you develop and refine the sense of feel you use to find your maximal sustainable pace. The brain changes physically in response to training every bit as much as the muscles do” (2014, p. 1).  The mind is being trained right along with your muscles, mile after mile.  Many athletes get their mind ready for the big game, meet, or race by visualization.  They lie in bed and imagine scoring the winning goal or envision themselves running with the perfect form within their target pace.  Fitzgerald (2014) states that visualization “won’t improve your running performance as much as taking full advantage of the mental training that occurs during your training runs. Your race performance is ultimately determined by how fast your mind/brain feels your body can go, and that, in turn, is determined primarily by how fast you have proved to your mind/brain that you can go in training.”  While there is nothing wrong with visualization, the overall training happens on the run, while you are logging the miles. 

Once you have completed the training, mind and body, it now becomes about race day.  The scenario changes and according to the American Running Association (1995), they found that there are four common mental strategies runners go through on race day:

  1. Internal Association
  2. Internal Dissociation
  3. External Association
  4. External Dissociation

Internal association is focusing on how the body feels during running.  Are you sore, tired, feeling great, etc.?  Many runners found this strategy to be most common, however, it augmented discomfort and had many runners hitting that “wall” too early and having it last longer than others who used one of the other strategies.  However, most runners focus on internal dissociation, which is distraction, singing songs in your head, playing a mental puzzle.  Most of these runners hit the “wall” because of how detached they became from the race itself.  Runners were so distracted that they were not focused on their pace or even more important information such as dehydration.  Avoiding the body altogether could lead to serious injury or illness. External dissociation focuses on events during the race such as the scenery, the spectators, or the runner’s costumes.  This strategy focuses on the fun side of running the race.  Runners are not hitting this “wall” due to the fact that they are observing the spectators and costumed runners passing, creating enough of a focus to stay on the correct pace.  External association focuses on all things important to the race, such as, split times, closest water stations, being passed by runners, etc.  Runners using this strategy did not experience hitting the “wall” as often as the internal-focused runners. 

What is the ideal way to think on race day? – A mixture of all.  “It may be ideal, then, to check in on your body periodically-if briefly-and focus most of your attention externally: on both factors important to the marathon as well as on the enjoyable atmosphere. The latter may be unrelated to performance in any direct sense, but it nevertheless has the power to surround and energize you as you strive to keep your head up, your confidence high and your feet moving toward that finish line” (American Running Association, p. 5, 1998).  Runners need to find their niche and what works for them, however focusing on training the mind will get you ready for the race.  Before crossing the finish line, you have to figure out how you will get there!



Six-time Ironman champion Dave Scott said it well in an article for

“I knew going into each race that my confidence would help to support a fast day and a successful outcome. After transitioning from coaching myself to coaching others, I knew the best place to start was to establish and build upon an athlete’s confidence level. The technical stuff is secondary if you don’t have the inner-drive, mental edge and physical foundation to take the leap.” 




 American Running Association, Running & FitNews 2004, Vol. 22, No. 1, p.5

Fitzgerald, M. (2014). Don’t’ Separate Mental Training From Physical Training.

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