Motivational tips for the mid race marathon when it’s just not your day

When it comes to the marathon, those 26.2 miles are thought to be a celebration of your workout. But it’s not always easy to have fun when you’re ticking off the miles — especially when you feel like your PR is getting further out of reach with every step.

Des Linden, a two-time Olympian, 2018 Boston Marathon champion and Brooks running advisor, says she walked to the start line of a race thinking she would miss her goal…before she even started running.

“I can recall dozens of instances where that was the mindset that went into the race before the gun was even fired – including a first race after returning from injury, less than ideal weather conditions, sub-par training in build-up,” she said told The world of the runner. Then she reminds herself (and us) that “you have to run and compete where you are, not where you want to be.”

So how do you keep your sanity, motivation and commitment to racing when it’s just not your day? (Because, unfortunately, sometimes even marathon days aren’t our days.) Linden, along with fellow running experts, including coaches and exercise psychologists, offer motivational tips for midrace marathons to help you get through those tough miles.

Have multiple goals

One super important thing to do before you start: think about your goals. In order for a runner to focus on their effort and performance, regardless of the results, having multiple (and customizable!) goals is a must, says Stephen Gonzalez, Ph.D. , Athletics Assistant Director for Leadership and Mental Performance at Dartmouth College and board member of the Association of Applied Sports Psychology. “For example, you have an ‘A’ race time, a ‘B’ race time, and a ‘C’ race time so you can calibrate what a great day, a good day, and an average day look like,” he explains. This gives you multiple options for goals to keep in mind and can keep you motivated, knowing you can achieve what you’re capable of on that particular day, he adds.

fight on

There will be ups and downs along the 26.2 mile route. Hit a rough spot? “You can’t stop believing that the next good spot is just around the corner,” says Linden. “If you settle or give up for a second, that could be the second that you miss your target.” Not to mention that our thoughts and our inability to control them are often our biggest obstacles, adds Percell Dugger, a Nike running coach and certified strength coach. “Just because you don’t feeling how PR is possible doesn’t mean those feelings are valid,” he says. “Sit back and remember the hours and moments when you didn’t feel like it but still had a good workout.”

Remember the 3 Ps

Focus on thoughts that are purposeful, productive, and offer opportunity, says Gonzalez. This “can help combat ineffective thoughts that could seriously derail a performance and instead allow for a good effort to get out of the day.” Be smart, too.Do what you can with what you have and where you are,” adds Gonzalez. “Take the conditions, your body and the track as they are. Don’t try to make something that isn’t there, as that will add to the frustration.” Some factors are out of your control (like bad weather conditions), so be flexible and adjust your vision for the race to better suit your challenges to be fair.

Linden recalls having to do just that during the 2022 Boston Marathon. “I was still on the comeback trail from some aches and pains, I knew it wasn’t going to be a PR day or even a very competitive day,” she says. “My goal was to make my personal floor better than most people’s ceiling. I wanted to find out how good I can be on one of my underperforming days?”

Focus on the process – not the outcome

Process goals are the granular actions or behaviors that lead to the outcome goal of a time or place — and they’re things you can actually control, says Gonzalez. For Linden, that means running smart and calculated for the first 20 miles of the race, eating well every 5k and not settling after 20 miles or being afraid to push hard. “These are the right steps to make sure I take care of myself and also prepare to compete well when the racing really gets going,” she says. It sounds cheesy, but it’s true: take the time to enjoy the journey, not just the destination.

Split the race up and celebrate each segment

Gonzalez says to remember WIN: what matters now. In the moment, that means things like getting to the next aid station or telephone pole, getting past the next three people, or just focusing on the current mile. “Mini-tasks you can complete will change your mindset from negative to positive if you complete each one,” adds Linden. While it might not be a PR effort, Linden says having little success along the way is a lot more fun than focusing on how bad you feel.

Break away from the moment

Whether you’re imagining crushing your boss’s face with every step or dancing gracefully across the finish line like a gazelle, Meghan Kennihan, an RRCA- and USATF-certified running coach and NASM-certified personal trainer, says dissociation is a can be a useful tool. “It allows you to detach from pain or fatigue by thinking about anything other than running,” she explains.

One caveat: She advises using it “sparingly during tricky phases of your race because if you’re not paying attention to the body, you lose touch. If you lose touch, you lose control.” Take yourself out of the moment when you need it, and then jump back in when you’re feeling better.

know your worth

If this marathon isn’t PR, that doesn’t mean you can’t in the future either. So be kind to yourself. “Tell yourself that part of growing is pushing boundaries and falling short,” says Gonzalez. After all, PR is just a fraction of who you are as a runner and as a person, adds Dugger. “Finishing a race is still an achievement to be proud of.”

Plus, “tough races offer an important lesson in dealing with the realities of life, where you’re constantly bombarded with disappointments, successes, and difficult choices in the moment,” Kennihan adds. Remember: there will be more races. “Think of this as a productive stepping stone to the next,” says Linden.

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