Marathon Motivation: 10 Proven Mental Strategies For Better Times!


Marathon motivation is hard to maintain over a long campaign…

Fortunately, I have 10 proven mental strategies that will help you get through the bad patches and enjoy your success.​

​How can I be so sure they will work?

Well, they’re all ways of challenging common cognitive distortions. These are inaccurate thoughts we often have when we’re under pressure which can reinforce negative thinking or unhelpful emotions…

Not what you want when you’re striving to maintain marathon motivation. ​

​So here’s how to defuse the 10 biggest mental booby traps you face during your marathon campaign. I’ve created what I call the Mind Over Marathon Tool.

Marathon Motivation Trap 1

The first thinking trap is to perceive the success or failure of your marathon campaign in stark black and white terms. Also known as thinking in…

marathon motivation trap 1

While thinking in absolutes may provide focus, you should also have contingency plans to fall back on if things go wrong. Otherwise, you face the slippery slope that can lead to overtraining, serious injury or burnout.

A typical situation is choosing just one extremely ambitious marathon goal that you insist you must attain in order to be successful. The risk increases when the target time is heavily influenced by emotional drives such as competitive rivalry or reliving past glories.

[clickToTweet tweet=”Don’t set yourself a dream marathon time that becomes a training nightmare!” quote=”Don’t set yourself a dream marathon time that becomes a training nightmare!”]

The solution is to have three tiered goals instead:

marathon time goals

Marathon Motivation Trap 2

The second thinking trap is to negatively magnify an event out of proportion to its actual significance. In other words...

marathon motivation trap 2

This is a biggie because EVERY marathon campaign will have its ups and downs so keeping things in perspective is a vital skill.

A common concern my clients flag every week is having a 'bad' session. Unfortunately, this can quickly get blown up in their minds as an unmitigated disaster!

marathon motivation ballooning

​Just remember... Marathon success comes from many tiny gains in fitness, not just a few strong performances.

​And, if you need further convincing, bear in mind your fitness temporarily drops following each key workout, so that your body can adapt to the training stress it's been put under.

So, it's time to view your workouts differently...

There are the toughies you need to just battle through. This indicates you have both the physical strength and mental resilience for marathon success.

There are cruise control days, where the emphasis should be more on recovery than outpacing your fellow runners!

And yes, there will be those days when you feel great and you perform even hard workouts on paper in relative comfort.  ​

Marathon Motivation Trap 3

The third thinking trap is to imagine that terrible consequences will result from a minor setback. You are...

marathon motivation trap 3

While similar to ballooning, the emphasis here is more on a bleak future than a disastrous present!

Classic catastrophising is picking up a minor niggling injury early on in your campaign and assuming it spells the end of your marathon PB/PR chances, or even reaching the start line!

marathon training setback

Challenge this thinking error by remembering you're training for a marathon, not an egg and spoon race! Aches and pains are inevitable and, unfortunately, minor niggling injuries will happen, particularly as we get older. In fact, some studies have reported injury rates up to 90% for marathon training runners.

It's more helpful to think how fortunate you were to be able to put mitigating measures in place, such as additional recovery, foam roller exercises etc. before the 'lights changed from amber to red'.

Marathon Motivation Trap 4

The fourth thinking trap is failing to acknowledge a positive situation or outcome. This reverse side of the coin is called...

marathon motivation trap 4

This in my experience is one of the most 'popular' traps runners fall into while seeking perfection in their performances.

So, imagine doing a half marathon practice race (highly recommended), where you nail the race logistics, get your fuelling and hydration spot on, and run even-paced splits.

A pleasing milestone ticked off, yes?...

marathon milestone

Well, actually, no, because you're at pains to point out that you were someway short of your half marathon PB/PR time.

This is when you need to get a firm grip on things and recall what the objectives of the race were... This is not the time for unhelpful goal creep.

If your aims were indeed to dress-rehearse race day conditions and practice even-paced running, then pat yourself on the back for a good job done.

If the goal is to run all out for a half marathon PB/PR, then don't cloud your focus by adding on all that marathon race logistics stuff... Keep things simple.

primary marathon goal

Have in mind a clear primary goal, so that any other positive outcomes are welcome bonuses, not mandatory conditions!

Marathon Motivation Trap 5

The fifth thinking trap is allowing your emotions to solely justify your perception of situations. This self-sabotaging form of emotional blackmail is officially called...

marathon motivation trap 5

Picture the scene... You've just completed an exhilarating 1 hour 45 minutes off-road run early on in your marathon campaign.

marathon base training

You understandably feel very tired and weary. And yet, you reason you're not fit enough to achieve your marathon goal.

You're irrationally using your negative emotions in response to a hard, yet satisfying workout as evidence you'll perform badly in the marathon itself... Yes, that event 15 long weeks away, that you haven't even started specific training for!

You're forgetting (or discounting) that the primary purpose of your carefully crafted marathon plan is to break your body down again and again in controlled ways, so that it rebuilds itself stronger each time. And ultimately you reach peak fitness when it matters most... on marathon day.

So, we've uncovered five ways you can overcome negative thinking and boost your marathon motivation. Yet we're only at the half way point! Let's crack on and challenge some more limiting beliefs.

Marathon Motivation Trap 6

The sixth thinking trap is sifting through experiences to pick out negative aspects.

marathon motivation trap 6

Yes, I agree, it's very similar to discounting, but at least I get the opportunity to share another marathon training example!

If you've worked directly with me or accessed any of my online trainings, you'll know I'm a strong advocate of repeat-based workouts to supplement continuous runs.

However, it's critical they're done correctly or they can stall or delay your progress.

A common mistake marathon runners make with repeats is micro-managing them mentally. What do I mean by that? It's the unnecessary scrutiny of each individual repeat. They filter out one or two efforts early on in the workout that were comparatively slower... Despite successfully staying within the target pace zone throughout the session.

The key to a good repeats workout is spending enough time within the target pace range to achieve the specific fitness gains.

So don't stress out over any individual repeats.

A good strategy (both physically and mentally) is to start off at the lower end of the pace range, and then run progressively faster within your target zone.

A common rookie error, is to bomb off too fast at the start, but then struggle to stay within the zone in later repeats.

marathon speedwork training

Marathon Motivation Trap 7

The seventh thinking trap is jumping to conclusions about what other people are thinking. You've guessed it, this one is called...

marathon motivation trap 7

So, what's this got to do with marathon running, the loneliness of the long distance runner and all that? Well, we're all social animals and this trap is particularly relevant if you're a member of a running club.

I've witnessed an unspoken rule, even on so-called steady or social runs that your fitness is on trial on club nights. And if that seems speculative, clients have admitted in coaching calls and consultations that they fear fellow club runners may disrespect them if they're seen to be struggling.

The upshot is there's a tendency to overcompensate with what I call the 'race to the club hut syndrome'. Unless you purposefully substituted your club social run with an acceleration run at the last minute, this will disrupt your hard-easy training cycle.

marathon running cub

So what mental strategy can you use to stop being top of the club run leader board with plummeting marathon rankings?

I suggest standing inside your fellow club runners' shoes... They're far more likely to be focussing on their own form! If you were struggling and they did even notice, they could have thought "no wonder you're slightly off pace, after that cracking practice race you did at the weekend..." Or even, "what a relief you're struggling, this means I too can have bad days and still be successful..."

If they are thinking less of you, then they just don't get the natural ebb and flow of marathon campaigns, so are unlikely to be successful.

Marathon Motivation Trap 8

The eighth thinking trap is taking the blame for situations that are beyond your control. This one is called...

marathon motivation trap 8

Contextually, this is another huge trap because:

[clickToTweet tweet="Marathon runners need to be more flexible in judging their performances over a long campaign." quote="Marathon runners need to be more flexible in judging their performances over a long campaign."]

Over the course of a marathon build-up, you will have to encounter and overcome adversity. And much of it is simply beyond your control.

So blaming yourself for a slower workout, despite the strong winds and driving rain that day is irrational... Yet extremely common.

Get into the habit of using different performance metrics to suit the conditions you're running in. Rate of Perceived Effort (RPE) is a better performance indicator than pace when conditions don't suit fast running. Here's a short video clip on RPE:

Marathon Motivation Trap 9

The penultimate thinking trap is having a perfectionist attitude that's impossible to maintain. Which is why it's called...

marathon motivation trap 9

Running coaches, magazines and books are partly to blame (although hopefully not hyper-responsible!).

This is because of the plethora of prescriptive plans out there that marathon runners are minded to follow, right down to the last stride without compromise.

This encourages obsessive thinking patterns when a more flexible mindset is needed.

prescriptive marathon plans

These plans aren't personalised to each runner's individual needs, strengths and preferences, so without adjustment are likely to be be too tough, too easy or too monotonous!

Once more, the solution requires a mental shift... Create a training plan that provides an extremely useful framework, yet know that the reality will always be different! In fact, one of the guiding principles of Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) can be applied:

[clickToTweet tweet="When you get into marathon training you quickly find out the map is not the territory." quote="When you get into marathon training you quickly find out the map is not the territory."]

Marathon Motivation Trap 10

We've finally reached the last thinking trap, which is comparing yourself unfavourably to others. Not surprisingly it's called...

marathon motivation trap 10

What this comes down to is comparing your performances and results obsessively with those of faster fellow runners. This is a serious trap as it is linked with low self-esteem.

We noted earlier the fallacy of trying to excel in every marathon workout when conditions are outside your control. Judging yourself harshly in comparison with other runners relinquishes the control you have over your marathon prospects still further.

Don't fall into the trap of judging your current performances with that other self if the circumstances are markedly different. Your race performances as say a 55 year-old with a super-busy lifestyle, running four times a week, aren't likely to compare favourably to that committed 28 year-old, running 60 miles a week!

marathon training career

The most helpful comparisons you can make are in your own performances, as you track your fitness progression through your current marathon campaign.

You now have the mental strategies to solve the 10 biggest marathon motivation issues!

My hope is that you'll refer back to them frequently, so you can stay pumped up throughout your campaign and get the success all your hard training deserves.

And to make that easier for you I have condensed this blog post down into a one-page cheat sheet for you so that you can quickly and easily enjoy 'mind over marathon'!

I'd love to know what marathon motivation thinking traps you've fallen into and what you did to escape? Please share your experiences in the comments below...

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