Using your emotions to drive you to marathon success

by Stuart Holliday of Focused Mind Coaching

If you’ve got a spring marathon, how is your training going? Has the recent cold snap impacted your schedule? Maybe you’ve had to compromise sessions by using the dreadmill (or life has got in the way). Or you’ve had races to test your mettle cancelled due to the conditions. Has this led you to question your strategy for your target race or how you’ll feel through your taper? In this post I will try to give guidance on how you can enhance your mental game and settle any nerves through the last few weeks of your training cycle.

Steve has invited me to contribute to The Milestone Pursuit blog to share my knowledge and skills as a performance psychologist. I’m Stuart Holliday and my company (Focused Mind Coaching) works with athletes and business people to help achieve excellence in their performance in reaching or exceeding their goals. I apply the principles and lessons learnt from working with Olympic teams and Liverpool FC for Professor Steve Peters and his Chimp Paradox thinking over the last 4 years.


Knowing your “why” for doing a marathon

I’m a runner too, so I’m on board with the Milestone Pursuit ethos of understanding why you’re pushing yourself through a long training cycle in order to achieve your best on race day. I’m fortunate enough to be part of the Asics sport science Pro Team working with the specific needs of athletes so they can develop their existing emotional skill. By helping people become more aware of their mental capabilities, we are able to tap into that extra 5% or 10% required in sport to maximise our super strengths, and enjoyment of the race experience. If we see challenge instead of threat and create better mental plans to cope with whatever comes our way, we are more likely to have an enjoyable and fulfilling experience.


Maximising taper time

There’s a phrase in running that confidence is currency. By building this ‘strength’, it should increase your ‘wealth’ to take in to your race to ‘spend wisely’. I hope that in this post, I can help you take some of the building blocks you’ve accrued through your training to help increase your confidence.
For the purposes of this piece, let’s assume you’re a runner who has done the majority of your training and you are reaching the last part of training or your taper. This can be a dangerous part of marathon training as having more free time from running allows your emotions to stop and catch up with the reality that race day is just around the corner. But, you have a golden opportunity to stop those emotions from leading you down an anxious avenue and instead I advocate using this time wisely to build up your confidence currency.


What are the best tips to train and manage my monkey mind?

Aside from being absolutely clear of your full reasoning for why you’re doing the race and what you want to get out of it, take the time to go back over your training log (whether that’s on paper, on Strava or Garmin Connect etc.).


How have you been recording your training?

In your journal take the time to remember not just what your times and splits were, but how you felt – I know this is something that Steve asks you to record. Take the time to note and praise yourself for when you had a tough set or session and actually look at the facts, truth and evidence about how you’ve trained and the condition you’re actually in. Odds are, you’ve got currency there that you should be cashing in. Steve calls these your Reasons to Believe.


Preparing for the tough stuff

In the later stages of a marathon, even if you’re Dennis Kimetto (the current men’s world record holder!), an expectation of the ‘pain train’ making an appearance is worth legislating for. In some cases, this may be the dreaded ‘wall’, so it is worth spending some quality time planning how to negotiate with yourself. Ideally you’ve had some test races or sessions where you’ve been in the red or on the limit. How are you going to transform your experience and knowledge from the last 3 months to cope with any discomfort?

If you’re not sure, don’t panic! As Professor Andy Lane said on Marathon Talk last year (skip to minute 43:45); if we engage with our emotions during a race, and have a rehearsed strategy or mantra, we will have a ready-made answer with which to overcome any possible mental or physical distractions. Steve also talks about being courageous when it’s hard and how important emotions are in being brave referring back to the stem of the word ‘courage’ which comes from Cor, the Latin word for Heart. Being emotionally skilled enough in pressure situations to know our own emotions and how to deal with them is the most effective strategy. Developing a race mantra is how you can execute that strategy.

Of course, in your planning you should also ensure you don’t go out too hard or fast in the first 5 or 10 miles (be patient!); ensure that you’re well fuelled (and have a fuelling strategy!) and try to use cues about your running form and the environment to visualize yourself running well to stay in the moment and cope with any onset of fatigue. Again, this ‘study time’ will aim to build up your confidence currency and lessen discomfort for both brain and body!


Pulling it altogether

Having spent some time following these tips I hope you should begin to help your emotions (also known as your inner chimp) to chill out and work to your advantage! During your downtime, I recommend taking the time to recognise when your chimp starts overthinking about the race day and refer back to the advice here or do something proactive. Maybe some meditation; taking a short walk; count to 10 or have other kinds of rest e.g. a sauna or spa and more social time with friends and family who may have been neglected during your 3-month training cycle.



Whilst we don’t want to eliminate the excitement and expectation of your emotions, we ideally want the power of your chimp (your emotions) to be ready for race day. So help it relax as much as you need and give it a plan to get the most out of your taper AND be ready for race day. You’ll need the chimp in the last 6 miles or at least be able to manage it during the time beforehand.

As the Kenyans say, run relaxed having trained hard. And trust your training process. You’re race ready and you need to have spent at least a bit of time reflecting so you can fully let go and enjoy the race day experience, stay positive and give as good an account of yourself as the occasion will allow.


The disclaimer!

This might sound surprising for a practitioner to say, but not everyone needs psychological or emotional skill training. It’s entirely possible that through nature or experience, some athletes have a fully functioning skill base to meet whatever challenge they face and succeed in achieving their goal. The problem with endurance sport and marathons is that often, however well you have physically trained, on the day, different factors and hurdles can crop up that you may not have legislated for. These may be the things that nag away at our emotions during the taper, so you need something in your locker to call on to get yourself out of a spot.

Maybe you’ve already achieved great things with your running, but you can still crank up your mindset for an even better performance. One of my athletes plays for an international team in their discipline. She is very emotionally skilled and practices her mental game as part of her prep. But even she said to me:

“I know I am capable of performing specific skills in my discipline. But the real skill I have to keep revisiting is building my belief that in the highest level of competition, I can call on and perform it when it counts.”

So good luck if you have a marathon coming up. Well done on (nearly) reaching your taper. Use it wisely to build up your currency to get the most out your race-day experience and don’t short change yourself. Feel free to ask any questions you have to Steve or myself.

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