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How to Mentally Prepare for a Race

As the New York City Marathon gets closer, it seems that time is now moving even quicker than it’s usual speed-of-light pace. I am finding myself running out of time to get everything done each day, even with shorter runs while I taper for the race. This is something that always happens to me during taper – about three weeks prior to race day I begin to scale down my distance to prepare my body for the race, and while doing so my mental game gets a little rocky.

NYC Marathon Mental Preparation

Last week, I began researching the logistical details for the marathon and planning our trip to the city. My excitement began to increase exponentially, but as I read more and more race recaps from fellow bloggers, I was reminded just how grueling the marathon is. It’s easy to get wrapped up in training and start feeling confident when you conquer those 20 mile long runs, knowing that the actual race is only a 10k more. Reading those race recaps reminded me just how challenging those last 6 miles are, especially on a course as hilly as NYC. This reminder shook my confidence for a little bit, until I remembered that this always happens leading up to a race – no matter how prepared I may be.

Taper is an exciting time because it leads up to the culmination of our hard work, but despite all the excitement, it is arguably the most mentally challenging time of the entire training period. No matter what distance race you will be running, taper can lead to feelings of uncertainty, doubt, and nervousness. While race day gets closer and closer, we find ourselves running less and less, which is exactly the opposite of what we think we should be doing.

Race Mental Preparation

Rather than focusing on the challenges and enormity of the event that lies ahead, I like to use these few weeks leading up to a race to mentally prepare myself to tackle the distance. By the end of our training plan we have done all of the physical work needed. Aside from an injury or illness, our bodies are fully prepared to run the race. Our legs have put in their practice and will be there to get us through the race – so here is when the mental work comes in. If our body is so ready for race day, then why do we find ourselves struggling during the race at mileage that felt like a breeze for us during training?

Because we have let the enormity of what we are doing overwhelm us.

A marathon, or any race where you push yourself, challenges us mentally more so than physically. Our minds have to be in tip top shape to get us through those 26 miles, that faster pace, or those hills.

When I find myself with extra time on my hands as the miles decrease leading up to race day, these are some of my favorite ways to get my mind ready to go as well.

Conquer Race Doubts and Uncertainties

How to Mentally Prepare for a Race:

  • Read through your training log. If you haven’t been keeping a training log, then look back through your training plan at all the runs you have completed. It is so easy to forget that challenging 12 miler in the first month of training, or those 8 miles you ran on the hottest day of the summer. Reading through the struggles and distances we have overcome remind us that we have already put in the work to get ready for this race.
  • Find a mantra or quote to use on race day. One of my favorites for a marathon is “pain is temporary”, because I know that at some point along the course I will question why I am doing this to myself and whether or not I can finish. Whatever quote or mantra you find that motivates you, reminds you of a purpose, or gives you some inspiration will suffice. Repeat that mantra to yourself and keep it with you on race day – because it is inevitable that you will experience some moments of self doubt along the course.
  • Decide to whom or what you are going to dedicate your race. This is something I like to do when I know I have a challenging run ahead. I like to dedicate each mile or section of the race to someone in my mind, so when things get tough, I think of them and tell myself that I am pushing through for them. Running for a cause greater than yourself is wonderful motivation to conquer those obstacles. Think of who or what you will dedicate those miles to on race day and take that purpose with you to the start.
  • Plan out the logistics for race day down to the littlest details. Nothing eases my worries more than having a plan in place. At least a week prior to the race, I like to read through every single detail on the website and look at maps of the city where we will be staying. I plan my outfit, how I’ll do my hair, the time of my alarm, my breakfast, fuel, bathroom stops, expo visit, post-finish plans, transportation – you name it. Thinking through all the details ahead of time sets my mind at ease knowing that I have prepared for all the potential things that could go wrong.
  • Find something (a great restaurant, cool park, etc.) near the finish line of the race where you will go to reward yourself. When I am traveling for a race, I LOVE to do a little research and find a cool restaurant where I want to have dinner after the race. It sounds silly, but when things get tough during the race I often thing of this meal and that gives me some excitement to keep going. In the weeks leading up to the race, I look forward to that post marathon ice cream cone and it helps fuel my excitement even more.
  • Picture yourself crossing that finish line and imagine how it will feel. During those last few runs leading up to the race I love to picture myself crossing the finish line and imagine how awesome it will feel. I know I will be in pain when I cross that line, but imagining the accomplishment gets me so excited. Picturing yourself succeeding is a great mental trick to give you some confidence prior to even starting.
  • Remind yourself of races you have run in the past, and think through how you got through those moments when you wanted to quit. I have yet to run a marathon where I don’t question why the heck I decided to do it. At some point along the course, I find myself in immense pain, and usually pretty emotional. These are the points when I start to get angry with myself and wonder what I was thinking when I signed up to do this for fun. Looking back on those moments, I remind myself that I was able to get through them even when I thought that I absolutely could not run another step. I remember the tricks I used to motivate myself and plan to use them again during the upcoming race.
  • If you haven’t already, set A, B and C goals for the race. I am a huge fan of goals. Goals give us purpose, help us stay motivated and keep us realistic all at the same time. At the beginning of each new training plan I always set three goals for myself. My A goal is the most challenging – it is the goal that I have always wanted to accomplish, and the goal that I will aim for throughout training. My B and C goals are things that I want to accomplish and are a little less challenging, but still would be a source of pride. That way, if I realize part way into the race that there’s no way  I am going to hit my A goal, I can set my sights on my B goal and still have a milestone to reach.
  • Remind yourself that there are going to be hard moments during the race no matter what you do ahead of time, and focus on why you signed up for the race in the first place. Our initial motivation to sign up for a race often gets lost along the way while we are training, so I like to take some time to remind myself what my motivation was at the very beginning when I signed up for the race, before training had even started.
  • Smile. Having a smile on your face, even when you are frowning on the inside, is a great way to trick your mind. Fake it till you make it – and if that means forcing yourself to smile when you see the photographers then you’d better do it. When your face is smiling, it’s so much harder to be upset.

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