Long-distance training is a battle of mind over muscle and here’s how to forge the mental strength to keep going when your body is telling you to stop.

For many endurance athletes the likelihood of hitting both the mental and physical wall is one of the most daunting parts of running a marathon. Research has shown that the likelihood of hitting these walls is greatest once runners reach the 30km (18 miles) mark, but this likelihood can actually increase from as early as the 10km (6 miles) point. At this juncture it is easy to mentally disengage from the race, but there are a few tips that can prevent this from happening. Here’s the run down of what you need to push past the mental blockade that could be preventing you from feeling the finisher’s ribbon tugging across your chest.

Talk it up

One of the most tried and tested methods you can use to overcome this are positive self-verbalizations and motivational self-talk. Something as simple as stating you can finish the race will really help get you over the finish line. Even small statements can help, for example, “I will keep running for the next mile.” These types of self-verbalizations can modulate the effect of a psychological crisis such as hitting the wall. Furthermore, in trained athletes, these motivational self-talk techniques were able to improve their endurance capacity by 29% and improve their tolerance for exercise by 100%. Big enhancements that’ll keep you going when it gets tough.

Overcome the mental fatigue

An exhausted mind has not only been shown to significantly affect the time at which you reach exhaustion, but also how much effort you perceive you’re putting in and can cause you to disengage earlier than those who are not mentally fatigued. While at times, this can make you feel as if you may never reach the finish line, it is important to remain positive.

To avoid disengaging from training, you can set yourself mental goals to help push through these hard times. When setting these goals, it’s wise to set different levels of goals, not just time-based ones. So, instead of just saying: “I want to finish within 4 hours,” it can be helpful to have additional goals or targets to fall back on if any injuries or unforeseen events were to happen in the race. This could even end up being something such as, “I will finish, even if I have to walk for the last mile.” Having back-up plans or goals means when you finish the race you will still feel a sense of achievement. Other things that can help you to overcome mental fatigue during a long-distance run, include:

1. Breaking the race in to different parts.
2. Running your own race and not focusing on what other people are doing around you.
3. Focusing on other things, for example, the scenery and environment around you. This can help dissociate you from your physiological response to the race.
4. Rewarding yourself at different points throughout the race, i.e. every 5 miles you’ll have a jelly baby.

See yourself

One particularly powerful tool for ensuring you are mentally prepared for a race is to use positive self-visualizations. Formulate a picture of success on race day and replay this scenario over and over in your mind. It will also be useful to come up with how you will deal with other scenarios that may sabotage you on race day so you are prepared for anything and can have a successful race. This is a top tip for boosting confidence and will ensure that you feel prepared for all circumstances.

Embrace the past

Recalling successful training runs will leave you feeling positive about the race ahead. If you have any specific routines that you stuck to throughout your training, make sure that you leave yourself enough time to complete all of these before the race, as this will leave you feeling more relaxed. It might be helpful to begin these routines early to avoid any stress or anxiety on race day that might be felt if you do not manage to complete your set routine. You might want to practice some mindfulness and also start with positive self-visualizations of crossing the finish line. The most important thing is to remember that it is all a bit of fun and even if you don’t reach your goal of finishing in a certain time, you have still completed something that most people wouldn’t even consider attempting. Your journey to get there is tangible evidence of a strong and motivated mind.


Isabel Leming
is the senior TMS technician at Smart TMS, the UK’s leading mental health clinic specializing in Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation.