8 Top Mental Tips for Running a Marathon

We offer the top mental tips for running a marathon including preparation and strategies.

Running a marathon is an amazing athletic accomplishment. Serious runners train tirelessly for the chance to navigate 26.2 gruelling miles and cross the finish line

While running a marathon is a tall physical challenge, it’s also a difficult mental task. Finding the mental stamina to fight through the emotional highs and lows of a long race shouldn’t be taken lightly, and studies have shown the mental aspect for marathon runners is just as big as the physical side.

Just like runners train their bodies to handle the physical grind of a marathon, they can also train their minds and create strategies for dealing with the mental challenge. Experienced runners in the New York City Marathon or the London Marathon still use some of these tips.

Table Of Contents

8 Mental Tips For Running 26.2 Miles

1. Enter the Race in the Right State of Mind

The start of a marathon can be overwhelming

Waking up on race day presents a ton of emotions. The combination of adrenaline and anxiety can become overwhelming, and dealing with those before reaching the starting line is important. 

Get ready to handle those emotions when they inevitably arrive. Many runners rely on a mantra entering a marathon, and recalling that thought throughout the day can help you keep a level head. 

As part of mental training, pick a personal mantra that helps you get into your best running state, and keep it near the front of your mind whenever you feel some nerves. Keeping your legs moving after crossing the start line is a mental battle, and having the right attitude will make it easier. A visualisation exercise can help too. Primed Mind offers some of these.

2. Remember, It’s One Race

Running a marathon is a big event for every runner competing. They spend countless hours getting ready for race day, and that preparation can lead to immense pressure once the marathon arrives, particularly for first-time runners.

It’s important to remember that it’s just one race. The pressure of the event can detract from your performance, and if you’re feeling the pressure about the importance of the event, try to take a step back and recall why you’re doing it in the first place.

Getting ready to run in a marathon is an accomplishment on its own, and running in the race is the reward for the long journey. If it doesn't go to plan, you can always train for another. 

3. Use Mental Checkpoints to Break Up the Race

The sheer distance of a marathon makes running the race a daunting task. Running or walking 26.2 miles is a remarkable athletic feat. Although, during the early stages of the race, it might seem like a never-ending gauntlet.

Instead of viewing the race as one long task, break the race into segments, giving yourself smaller checkpoints along the way to provide a sense of accomplishment and a mental boost. 

Break down your race into segments like:

  • Water stations
  • One mile markers
  • The half-way marker
  • The last 6.2 miles
  • The next time you'll use an energy gel
  • A landmark or town 

Focusing on these markers is easier mentally than focusing only on the finish line over 20 miles away.

4. Remember Your Training

The last 6.2 miles of a marathon are harder than the previous 20 miles combined. So you'll need a lot of mental toughness to get through it.

Fortunately, that's what you trained for. 

Your training plan and those early morning long-distance running sessions were designed to help you perform at your best during the race. If you completed tune-up races like a 10k or half-marathon, you have a base level of fitness to compete.

The countless hours have put you in position to finish the marathon by making you a better runner. And, if the marathon goes awry for some reason, have a back-up goal, for example a lower target finish time. 

5. Stay Positive!

You mental preparation for a marathon can get you to the finish line

Don’t let negative thoughts impact you during a race. You put in the work to run in a marathon, and all of your training will help carry you to the finish line.

Negative thoughts are only going to make it harder to keep your feet moving and reach your ultimate goal. Maintain your confidence and focus on positive thoughts with some self talk, and getting through the journey with a high energy level will be much easier. 

Many marathoners write positive mantras on their hand or forearm. Or they arrange with family members beforehand to meet them at a particularly challenging point in the race.

6. Run With a Pacer

Running a marathon puts you on an island. You’re alone with your thoughts for 26.2 miles, and your success and ability to finish will come down to your mental and physical willpower. 

Fortunately, bigger races include pacers as well. They typically run with a target time on their backs or carry a sign or balloon with this time. They run at a particular speed, so newer marathoners don't have to worry about their splits.

Running behind or along side these simplifies things. Focus on their back or their shoes, the sign or balloon.

These little wins can provide a big boost of confidence during a race, and before you know it, you'll cross the finish line. Despite that, no one is ever truly alone during a marathon. There are countless other runners on the course, and they’re all heading for the same goal.

So while running, give yourself small mental challenges against other competitors. Try to keep pace with someone else around you for a certain stretch of time, or set the goal of trying to close the gap between you and a person out ahead. 

7. Think About Something Other Than Running

As important as it is to maintain your focus on the race, taking a mental break and thinking about something other than running can break up the monotony of a marathon.

This can involve thinking about one of your other interests for a stretch of the race, or simply looking for landmarks and other things along the course. Giving your mind another task can help keep it mentally sharp while your body continues to pump out the miles.

Yes, your legs may hurt, but can you count your breaths? What about your steps? Take advantage of the crowd and use their signs and cheers as encouragement.

8. Focus On the End Goal

Your training has led you to this moment

All of your training and preparation led you to the race, yet the physical and mental grind can take a toll during the actual run. In those daunting moments, visualizing the end can help you overcome any adversity.

Imagine the thought of crossing the finish line and the feeling of accomplishment of running those final steps. The end of the race is the ultimate goal, and it will provide you with the euphoria and pride of a job well done.

While the race itself might seem long and challenging at the time, remember it’s just a small part of your journey. The months of training have already been accomplished, and reaching the finish line will be the final payoff. 

And while there will be plenty of runners around you, this is still your own race. Go at a comfortable pace to give yourself the best chance to succeed.

The Final Word on Mental Tips for Running a Marathon

Running a marathon is just as much of a mental grind as it is a physical challenge. Having the mental endurance to make it through the 26.2 miles is just as important as building speed and stamina.

Having a few tips in your pocket entering the race can provide many benefits along the way, and they’ll help you reach your ultimate goal of crossing the finish line.

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