The Psychology of Running a Marathon

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There’s just something special about the marathon distance. It’s not only about the unique ancient Greek history of the marathon but it’s definitely the distance most amateur runners dream of finishing one day.

When looking as a beginning endurance runner at the 26.2 miles can be very intimidating but it’s a very realistic (long-term) goal almost every healthy human being can achieve.

Without a doubt running a marathon is a great feat of your body but the psychological side of the game often gets underestimated. If you’re not familiar with training consistent for months towards the marathon finish line, you’ll meet some mental obstacles as well.

To best prepare you as a future marathoner I thought I’ll write up a post to help you deal with the psychological barriers marathon training, racing and finishing will confront you with.

Decision Making: Saying Yes to Running a Marathon

The first mental hurdle most people don’t take in their entire life is to decide to run a marathon in the first place. Training for a marathon is an ambitious projects that needs dedication and demands a lot from you. So saying yes and committing to months of hard work is quite a big step.

If you already decided to strive for the full marathon distance then congratulations. You’re already closer to finishing a marathon than 95% of the world’s population.

Quote by american runner John Bingham. He‘s right about that!

During tough times try to reflect how you came to the decision to go for it. There were strong reasons whatever they were. Think back what made you say YES and let these reasons carry you through tough training days.

The Tricks Your Mind Plays on You

So you‘re determined to fight through training, decided on a race date and now you only need to follow your recently planned training routine for some months. Easy right? For most it isn’t, especially when training for your first ever marathon.

Be prepared that your mind starts playing tricks on you. You’ll observe yourself thinking stuff like: „I don’t need to run today, it’s still a long time until the race“ or „It’s raining so I call of training and hang on the sofa instead“. This will most probably happen so be ready and lace up your running shoes the minute you have these thoughts.

Lack of motivation is a common problem and completely normal. But it will get better after every run you did despite any reason your mind set out for you to miss out on a workout. I also find that going for a run in heavy weather will result in a great feeling afterwards as well as a motivational boost. You just have to do this first step. As soon as you’re outside running, you’re good.

Controlling Excitement

In contrary of a motivational deficit also being overmotivated is very usual especially in the first weeks of your preparation. And since this excitement is a great feeling and a good thing to keep at it, it is very hard to control and not let this excitement have too big of an  impact on your actions.

There are two problems when your excitement controls you: First is the danger of overtraining and getting injured. Yes it might be good to run 10-30k every single day but you can’t do that without getting injured after spending years mostly sitting. Being able to conduct a high-volume training routine needs some experience and a good stock of base fitness. Always listen to your body and cut back on mileage when you can’t recover fast enough.

The second issue when overly excited is right on that starting line. And I’m sure you’ve read about that. Getting off too fast! This is the number one mistake novice endurance runners do on race day. Therefore it is important to analyze your training data and start your race a bit below of a realistic race pace. Since you already rewarded yourself with a good sports watch, this is the time to use it.


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The Struggles During the Race

And then there’s race day. The day you worked towards for months. You stand in the midst of thousands of other marathoners almost exploding and eager to get started. In the hours to come you demand a lot from your body and maybe even more from your mind.

As mentioned above in the beginning of a marathon you have to control yourself actively and don’t let your excitement dictate your pace. If you don’t do that in the beginning the challenges both physical and mental are much harder towards the end of the race.

For most runners the struggles begin at around the 20 mile mark. This is when the mind plays another trick on you. You’ll find yourself thinking around very striking reasons to quit or to just walk. It’s one of the big challenges of running a marathon to keep going despite these thoughts.

There are some tactics to battle through these tough times during a marathon. When you practice some form of meditation or did other mental preparations, this is your time to shine. Try to visualize as vividly as possible how you cross the finish line. And remind yourself how hard you worked for this and how close you are now to achieving your goal.

The key here is to shift your thoughts away from the struggles and/or the pain and focus on something positive. I know it’s not easy and you have an advantage if you trained this during your long runs in training. Also good motivational music can give you a final boost here.

Finish Line Feelings

As you approach the last mile of a marathon the certainty that you WILL cross that finish line spreads in your mind. You’ll see that this completely changes your emotional world positively. Now it’s time to enjoy and suck up all those awesome feelings.

I wanna emphasize this. You worked for months for the minutes that are now just around the corner. Try to be as much in the moment as you can and appreciate every aspect of your emotions right now. You earned that one.

The moment when you cross the finish line, what comes to your mind? I have: deep satisfaction, sense of achievement, feeling unbreakable and pure happiness. If this is your first marathon finish, get ready to be addicted to all those positive emotions.

Thoughts After Finishing a Marathon

Alright you did it which is just awesome, plain and simple. But what now? Dozens of workout sessions, hours of stretching, weight training and preparing for the big day. And now it’s over.

You’ve probably read that when sitting on the sofa recovering from a marathon you start thinking about running the next one. This is true for most first-time marathon finishers. Actually I had that thought right on the better side of the finish line. As stated before, be prepared to get addicted. And this is a very good thing as long as you set realistic goals and don’t overdo it.

But there’s another big advantage of your marathon experience(s). You get mentally tougher! Running marathons is a great metaphor for life. Sometimes you have highs and sometimes you have lows. But in the end it is always worth fighting through struggles. This is true in a marathon but also in life.

Your Turn

So this is what your mind is going to expect when training and running a marathon. And now it’s your turn. What kind of experiences did you make? Do you miss something in this post or do you agree/disagree with any of my statements? Let me know in the comments section or drop me a mail.

Happy running

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One comment on “The Psychology of Running a Marathon”

  • You my friend made an excellent description about the process. Just reading this words I remembered every minute of it, the training, the pain, the struggle on race day and the tears flowing while crossing the finish line of my first marathon (yes I’m a woman). This happened just a month ago, on March 3rd 2018 in The Woodlands in Houston, and yes I want more. I’m not a great runner (I’m super slow) but I don’t care, hope to do it again some day, but will have to wait a while, got pregnant right after the race so if you have any plans for post partum come back ket me know. Loved your article.

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