Mind Matters

From this weekend it is a mere 14 weeks until the London Marathon, 13 to Brighton, and 12 to my target, the first marathon foray norf, Manchester. Alternatively, as the @londonmarathon twitter feed highlighted on 11th January, precisely 100 days.

Cue joy, fear, terror, worry, anticipation, impatience, even panic. These, probably all at the same time, some greater than others, but a real sense of the impending. This side of Christmas is the point that realisation about the spring marathon really starts to kick in, and the point at which the physical dimension of your training really ratchets up. For 1st timers it’ll be the time that you reach distances you never thought possible, and yet you will still have to run a little bit further come race day.

For those who’ve done it before it’ll be the return of the old familiarity of reaching distances you never thought possible, and yet you will still have to run a little bit further come race day. Ground hog day anyone?

Whilst there are a range of training plans out there that set out the physical training you need to undertake to get to your goal, many offer very different perspectives on how much you are “supposed” to run, what length your longest run should be, and how many times a week you should hit the streets/parks/trails. Although helpful, such training plans can be a challenge in themselves, most of us have lives that include elements other than running/training and doing training runs 5 times a week may be a completely unrealistic goal given other demands on our time.

From my experience it is important for you to shape a training plan that works with your life. Yes some sacrifices will need to be made to have running as part of your life (whether you are training for a marathon or not) but it’s my strong belief based on my own experiences that you should own your training, not for your training to own you. If it owns you then there is a strong chance of real resentment about it building which is likely to detrimentally affect your chances of running a ‘good’ time, or even completing the training cycle, and the race on the day.

There are a number of elements though, that I think are non-negotiable, that you must have as part of your training.

  • Long runs are critical, as much as the distance you cover, but also the amount of time on your feet. You must have a long run as part of that schedule, but you don’t have to run the full 42km in training as part of that training. The longest I usually do is 37km (x miles) and that has stood me in good stead as I approach my ninth marathon.
  • Vary your running regime to include a mix of sessions where you aim to run at higher tempos (faster), or slower to aid recovery. And mix up your routes if you are able. The running regime should not become a chore to get through but an approach that enables you to develop your running, you train to be ready come race day, not necessarily meaning you will have the ‘best’ run every time you lace up and get out.
  • Review your nutrition – marathon training takes a heavy toll on the body, testing its resilience and fuel. There are plenty of great guides on nutrition so worth consulting these or getting specialist advice, particularly around the potential of some dietary supplements. This includes your general day to day nutrition but also using training to test your fuelling during the long runs, testing gels/blocks to see what works for you. Thus avoiding any nasty surprises come race day.
  • Stretching, foam rolling, and sports massage – to maintain your running capabilities these elements are critical, helping to deal with niggles before they turn into full blown injuries, and significantly aiding recovery. Again there are plenty of online sources to watch, read, review.
  • Rest and recuperation – the key element is to listen to your own body and have a clear sense of how tired the legs and body ‘feels’. Yes a run can rejuvenate, make you feel energised, but sometimes it is of greater benefit to just rest and allow the body to repair. Such situations are clear when injuries strike, but less obvious when they stay away, especially when training is going well. As a rule of thumb at least two rest days are a minimum, but I have found I have needed more rest as I have got older so will run three times a week, and have two days of core strength training to supplement the running, though some weeks this may reduce to 3 or 4 days of activity if I ‘feel’ I need extra rest because muscles hurt more, or longer, than usual, and/or I am particularly lethargic/tired/exhausted.

However, what is often missing from these training plans is any focus on training for a critical dimension of self. A dimension perhaps the most critical to you completing any run. One that is most likely to be seeking to sabotage you at all turns during your run, that comes to the fore during the very longest runs, and has the capability to be the most powerful advisor/enemy that will accompany you on every run.

I leave it to Elid Kipchoge, Kenyan Marathon runner, the current Olympic Marathon champion, and runner of the fastest ever marathon (2hr.00.25) though not an official world record to identify a key component of focus for your training who identified:

“If you don’t rule your mind, your mind will rule you”

If you’d like to see some information about his training before the 2017 Berlin Marathon then click here.

So how do you do this? How do you manage your mind, and does it really matter?

From my experience Elid’s focus on ruling the mind is a very interesting description that has powerful resonance for me. There are plenty of my previous blog entries, indeed most of them based on a cursory review, that feature some reference to battling with my mind, or the inner voice. Indeed, I think for many that have run any distance this battle is often key in even getting out to run in the first place, let alone pushing yourself to run further than you ever have.

It usually starts with some form of relatively polite questioning – what you want to be doing this for? Why do we need to go for a run? What do you think you are going to get from this? Alternatively, it can focus on the conditions outside – well it looks a bit hot/cold/wet/windy/slippery/crunchy/too busy/too quiet/ too dark/ too sunny for a run today; or the lack of correct kit/equipment/time.

Then it might get a little more insistent questioning your ability, that niggle, the hurty bit and whether these are going to be challenged by you getting out for a run. The final stage tends to be rather more ‘shouty’, reprimanding you for this decision, further questioning your ability, suggesting you’re threatening your continued existence, making suggestions about how much better things would be if……….you………just……….stopped what you’re doing and have a ‘nice’ sit down.

Why rush?

Why keep pushing yourself?

Why hurt yourself like this?

What’s that pain? Is that serious? Are you permanently damaging yourself?

We don’t need to finish you’ve done enough? You’ve shown everyone you can get out there.

You’re not a runner, you’re a very naughty boy/girl.


The key thing is to learn from this. To rule it, understand what words you hear, what control by your mind is being sought, is it seeking to assist your endeavour, or is it undermining it.

Listen to the words and phrases that are being used. When are these coming up for you? What are you doing at the time – is it up hills? Doing greater tempos? Running slower for recovery? When certain distances are reached?

In triangulating these experiences with the actuality of what is happening in your run, or before you even get out there you can be prepared for them. You can prepare responses.

Well yes it does hurt because I’m pushing myself hard up this hill/running much quicker than I have in a while. And that is ok. I’m happy with my technique and I’m comfortable with what I’m trying to do, and although it doesn’t feel comfortable I’m pretty sure I haven’t done any serious damage.

In preparing responses you also just run a quick self-check on technique, your stride pattern, is the kit fitting properly, is the chafing protection in place, what am I trying to achieve through what I am doing at the moment?

It may also be about listening to these messages, perhaps there’s some supportive stuff in there, or perhaps you need to counter it. A mantra matching the rhythm of your running may help to push through it and have something else to listen to, blocking out the more negative elements. I use ‘Run Strong’ repeated. Alternatively, do you need to distract yourself in another way? Run to the next lamppost/tree/bollard. Or take on some fuel/hydration.

It is likely that by observing these during your training that you will start to notice patterns. Such patterns give you clues and opportunities for expecting similar messages to appear in the future. I remember in the 2017 Brighton Marathon I was plagued by the ‘inner voice’ at around 17-18 miles about how hot I was getting (admittedly it was the hottest Brighton Marathon for a number of years) and whether I was overheating. In response I checked back on my previous water intake, my running form, my time and pace and was able to rationalise a solution. Yes it was hot, but with a little more water on board, a cup over the head at the next water station I began to feel cooler, got through the pressing urge to come to a juddering halt (‘just for a short time’) and drove on to a great PB.

The key though was that I was expecting something like this to come up and as I was prepared for it, able to rule the messages that came thick and fast. In training for this you might want to make a few notes of what comes up for you, write down the messages you hear, and the circumstances they seem to occur in. Rationalise these outside of the ‘heat’ of the run, this will train you to improve your response to them, plan strategies and approaches to deal with them, and ultimately respond in ways that will enable you to complete that run.

Have no doubt, as a sentient being – yes you, these ‘messages/voices’ will come out for you.

The ‘secret’ is to expect it, listen, prepare, and respond in the cool light of day, rather than waste all the opportunities in training to prepare mind AND body.

It matters, seize control.

About Simon Tanner

Nine time marathon runner, having run Brighton x6, London x2, and Manchester x1, finally got a London ballot place after 7 consecutive attempts. I try to write about things I'm going through / have gone through in training to help others attain their running goals, whatever the distance.
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1 Response to Mind Matters

  1. Pingback: Longer Run Training: Training the Mind | Where's the long run going?

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