Marathoning Mind Hacks: Mental Tricks for the Marathon

By Becky Wade

August 20, 2017

Despite my goal of cracking into the top five females, I didn’t go into last January’s Houston Marathon with the mindset of racing 26.2 miles. That’s an obscene amount of mile repeats strung together with no rest and an overwhelming task no matter how fit you are. Also a tall order: 42 kilometers at race pace, zero seconds recovery.

Numbers of that magnitude can be mentally draining and the last thing I want to feel when racing a marathon is depleted. So entering Houston, I spun the situation in my favor. Instead of running one intimidatingly long race, I hatched a plan to run several point-to-point courses as part of a tour of a city I know intimately: the start to Rice University, my alma mater (also Mile 7). Rice to the Galleria, which is rumored to warrant its own zip code (Mile 14.5). The Galleria to Memorial Drive, where my boyfriend Will would have dropped off had I not guilted him into staying with me for “just a couple more miles” (Mile 18). Memorial Drive to the end of Memorial Park, which MapMyRun recently announced is the most popular running route in the U.S. (Mile 22). Memorial Park to Buffalo Bayou, where I logged countless miles in the nine years I lived in Houston (Mile 24). Buffalo Bayou to US 75, the highway that leads straight to my family in Dallas (Mile 25). And finally, 75 to Discovery Green Park, a rare patch of green space downtown where I’d picnicked and seen live music while at Rice (Finish!).

houston marathon course map

Breaking a race up into manageable chunks is one of several strategies I employ when approaching a marathon. There are endless ways to go about it: racing from water station to water station, band to band, or five-mile segment to five-mile segment. The point is to dismantle a very long distance into pieces that are easier to process in the early stages and when the going gets tough.

Another tool that I like to compete with is a trusted mantra. I typically choose a word or short phrase that is meaningful and empowering, often something that I’ve used in workouts leading up to the race. One of my favorites is “Aizoh,” an Amharic word I learned in Ethiopia that means “Be strong! Chin up!” and that brings back great memories of punishing runs shared with kind new friends. I’ve read that “Fighter” has looped through Kara Goucher’s mind in key races, as did “Boston Strong” during Meb Keflezighi’s epic 2014 Boston Marathon victory.

For some runners, like the great Paula Radcliffe, words alone don’t suffice. When she starts to suffer, the marathon world record-holder reportedly counts to 100 three times in a row. By doing so, she’s able to distract herself enough to disassociate from some of the pain. By the time that the three sets are up, she’s usually one mile further down the road. In a marathon, which is essentially a long string of ebbs and flows, getting through those rough patches is what it’s all about.

Others, Olympic medalist and American record-holder Deena Kastor included, prefer to tackle marathons with mindfulness and optimism. I think of this as the “kill it with kindness” approach. Deena is famous for her incredible ability to twist any situation into a positive, including miserable conditions and pre-race nerves. “Excitement,” Deena calls it, recognizing butterflies as a sign of her preparation and the opportunity ahead.

While I’m a firm believer in the power of the mind in running as in everything else, there’s two caveats to any mental strategy: first, lots of practice is required in order to nail it when it counts. With the last suggestion especially, I don’t advise waiting until race morning to unleash your stockpile of positivity. Trust me: it doesn’t work.

Second, no matter how much you work on any of the tactics above, there’s no getting around the fact that you also need to be supremely fit to run the race of your dreams. After all, (and in case you need another excuse to replay last week’s historic steeplechase), the junction of physical and mental preparation is where the good stuff happens.

Becky Wade is currently training for the Chicago Marathon and sharing insight into her training and tips for the big race. If you have any questions for Becky or would like to see her tackle any specific topic, please feel free to tweet at her here: @Bexwade89

Becky Wade

Native Texan, Rice University grad, Colorado transplant. Specializing in the 3K Steeplechase and Marathon. Author of “Run the World: My 3,500-Mile Journey Through Running Cultures Around the Globe,” which is available on Amazon and wherever else you get your books.