Marathon Mindset Tips

Mental Strategies For Marathon Success

With Coach Alexa, Online Running Coach for We Run and the We Run Virtual Running Club

Hi team, Coach Alexa, here. At the time I’m recording this it’s London Marathon Week. I’ve been having conversations with some of my one-to-one runners who are running and also, of course, some of the amazing charity teams that I work with too. Things are often reaching a bit of a fever pitch this close to race day, in terms of our ‘brain gremlins’ starting to come up with stuff, a little bit of ‘maranoia’, perhaps some crazy dreams about weird, wonderful stuff that might go awry the race. So, I thought I’d talk a little bit in a short video today about stuff that you can do to kind of keep the brain in check before your marathon (or any big race really). If you’re in the week before race day, you’ve done the training now, and no matter how that has gone, you are as prepared as you are going to be at this stage.

The Body vs. The Brain

The body is always capable of more than the brain thinks it’s going to be capable of. So there are two little pieces of information that I’m gonna share in today’s video, hopefully to help you this week and on race day as well, whether you’re running the London Marathon this Sunday, or in fact any marathon or big race.

Our Brains Are Designed for Survival

Our brains have a tendency to try to hold us back, and they do that for safety and survival. So a lot of the wiring in our brain has not changed for millennia, but our culture and environment has changed quite a lot. This is one of the reasons we often default to not wanting to go out and do training. It’s why we default to eating a bit more cake, because our brain still has that wiring of “better eat the calories while you’ve got them, ’cause there might not be any food around tomorrow”, or “better not burn calories for no reason because we might need to run away from lions tomorrow.”

Race Day Mental Battles

Essentially, our brains are wired to prefer to do less rather than more. This why, come race day, endurance events are often thought of in chunks; there’s the bit that you run with your legs, the bit that you run with your heart, and then the bit that you run with your brain. And that’s because when we get into the second half or towards the latter stages of our marathon, our brain will be telling us “I really think we should slow down now.” This can manifest as thoughts, aches, tiredness and more.

Challenging the Brain’s Protective Instincts

But do bear in mind that unless you have picked up a real and noticeable injury during the marathon, that is usually just your brain trying to persuade you out of it. Your brain doesn’t know that you’re not going to have to go out and run the same distance again tomorrow, or next week. Or that you’re not going to have to go out and forage for food, or save the life of family member in some sort of lion-based disaster tomorrow! Your brain is trying to make you save energy, to save effort for later in the day and week.

Using the Brain to Our Advantage

So, using the brain to our advantage towards the end of a marathon can be really, really useful. And the London Marathon, I think is perhaps the best race for this because the camaraderie amongst the runners and support you’ll get out on the course is really second to none. But there are a few other little things that I’ll talk about next that you can use this week when it comes to all of those thoughts that are buzzing around our heads, and during the race just to keep settled, keep focused, and let the brain be a key player in how you perform and feel in that marathon as opposed to something that’s trying to lead you off path slightly.

‘The Chimp Paradox’

A few years ago I read a book called The Chimp Paradox. The basic premise of this book is that our brains have, in very simplistic terms, three levels of function. One is the autopilot mode – stuff that’s going on in the background without us even noticing. Digestion, breathing, pumping our heart, managing our immune system and so on, but also things that we can put in autopilot mode in the form of habits – like brushing our teeth.

Then there’s the Chimp – this is the bit of us that can get emotional, that maybe gets angry or gets upset or gets anxious about things and worries about all sorts of stuff. It’s the reactive bit and this is the bit that’s trying to look after us. It’s that gut reaction, it reacts quite quickly, and it does a lot of useful stuff for us.

The final part is what the books calls the Professor brain – though I just like calling it the human brain because this is the part we’d like to think we are most of the time. This is the part that takes its time, thinks about things carefully, has empathy for ourselves and others. It takes into account the complexity of the society we live in.

Managing the ‘Chimp’ During the Race

Using this model, it’s primarily the Chimp that’s causing those pre-race nerves and worries this week. And so it can be really helpful to come up with strategies for how to manage that part of our brain.

If your chimp is starting to come up with all sorts of worries, panics, phantom knee pain, dreams about forgetting your running shoes, all that sort of stuff; write things down. And then you can start to categorise things. Are these frankly ridiculous worries that with the benefit of a little bit of time and space to read it back, you realise, huh, that’s a bit silly?

Or are they maybe things that you could do something about? So if you’re worried about forgetting your running shoes, why not get your kit ready and lay it out now, so it’s all ready to go. There might be practical actions you can take to allay the fears that your Chimp brain is coming up with, or it might be a case of having a bit of a self-talk to let that part of your brain know you’ve heard its concerns, listened to them, and actually, everything is ok.

Encouragement and Self-Talk

During the race as well, that inner toddler, that chimp, that teenager, whatever you want to call it, will maybe start tapping on your shoulder or having a little bit of a paddy or a tantrum, in the latter stages of the race usually, or sometimes earlier. And again, it can be useful to try to just take a breath, give it a minute and say to it, I hear what you’re saying, but actually this is a really important day for me. We’ve done all of the training, and physically I think we’re in a good place today. Talk to that voice with a bit of care, empathy and understanding – like you would a friend.

Final Thoughts

Once again, unless you’re injured, you will most likely have more physically available to you than your brain thinks you have. If you got a phone call, for example, at the halfway point to say that something dreadful had happened to a family member, and they were 13.1 miles away, you needed to get there as quickly as possible, and the only way to get there was to run – you’d do it. So the framing really makes a difference. 

Be kind to that inner toddler or inner chimp. Look after it, coach it, talk nicely to it this week, listen to it, but don’t pander to it too much. Have a wonderful time running the London Marathon this weekend. It is the best marathon in the world (I’m not biased at all!) and I can’t wait to hear how everyone gets on. Happy running.

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