It's all in the head: a sports psychologist tells you how to ace the taper

You've trained your body, but now it's time to train your mind with these ten top tips to tweak your marathon mindset

Patrik Giardino

Having spent months training for the marathon, you are probably used to spending every spare moment running, recovering, stretching, strengthening, scanning Strava or eating. You might have dreamt of the spare time that taper will bring - but now it's here, the empty gaps in your timetable can send a mind wild with fear. Follow these ten top tips to calm the nerves and get your brain into race day shape.

Embrace the nerves

In the days before a marathon the butterflies in your stomach won’t just be fluttering gently – they will be doing somersaults. This is totally natural, as the part of your brain that is designed to protect you and keep you safe will not be impressed you are about to go and run 26.2 miles. It knows you will be heading into some discomfort so it floods your body with the stress chemical cortisol, trying to persuade you not to run. Your job is to notice this, and soothe it. Build up your story in your head to remind it: “It is supposed to be difficult. That is why I entered. But I have trained well and it matters to me that I try.”

Keep your strengths in mind

Training can focus on weaknesses, but race week is all about our strengths. What makes you amazing? The mix will be unique to you but might include mental strengths (like resilience, tenacity, or perspective), physical ones (like endurance, great technique or core strength), preparation ones (great training block, strong build up races) or the environment (like supporters or the course or weather being suited to your style).

Dig through your training diary

Have a look back through your training diary and highlight what you have done well. Which sessions give you confidence? Which runs or races taught you a great lesson that will come in handy during the race? Write down the date, the session and how you felt.

Create a motivational mantra

A motivational mantra is to be saved for the dark moments. It reminds you why you are putting yourself through this and can help drown out the unhelpful thoughts you will be having. Your mantra needs to follow three P’s: Personal, Positive and Purposeful.

Boost confidence

The Wednesday before your marathon sit down with a pen and paper and answer the following questions or statements:

  • My goal (ideally something I am in control of):
  • A technical instruction to give to myself when I get tired
  • Three strengths that will help me
  • Three sessions I nailed in the build-up
  • My motivational mantra

    Read through your list whenever the nerves kick in.

    Break the race up

    26.2 miles is a long way and your brain is quite right to be intimidated by it. Chunking the race up into smaller sections can make it feel much more manageable. You can chunk via distance, time or landmark. Giving yourself a goal (a pace or process) or a treat (a supporter to see or your favourite flavour gel) for each section. This means your brain has something to look forward to and will gives you a well needed dopamine buzz after you complete it.

    Smile

    A set of researchers found that smiling while running not only reduces the feeling of effort but can also increase your positive thoughts and calm your emotional state. Another found when cyclists were shown smiley faces while riding in a lab they were able to cycle for 12% longer than those who saw grumpy faces. To use this knowledge in your race you can firstly smile when you feel you are struggling, and secondly, hunt out those smiling in the crowd.

    Stick it to the tough times

    You will have difficult times in a marathon. Our circadian rhythm peaks and dips every 90 minutes, so even if the muscle soreness or the glycogen depletion doesn’t get us there will be a natural dip at least once, probably two or three times. Expect it. If we know we will have difficult moments we can have a strategy. My favourite is plastering my gels with stickers that my friends and family have written messages on. These are great to read when you are feeling depleted.

    Prevent the marathon blues

    The marathon may physically end after 26.2 miles, but mentally it will take a while longer. If you have been training hard and focused on this date for a long time you risk the post-race blues afterwards. These usually pop-up mid-week when the euphoria of finishing and the pain in your legs starts to subside and you get a real dip in mood. To prevent this, book in something fun (and non-running related) for the weekend after marathon day – ideally something that helps you celebrate your success.

    Learn and improve

    Finally, to make that success last and help you go even better in your next marathon, complete an analysis of your race: what went well, what could have gone better, what you would do differently and one action you will take into your next phase of training. This means whether or not marathon day went to plan, you can learn from it and come back even stronger.

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