Cambridge Half Marathon training tips

Mental strategies for long runs

Running coach Sarah Wightman gives a few thoughts on mindset for your longest training efforts…

Long training runs in the build up to a half marathon can be daunting. They can feel intimidating, and are significant exertions.

But a long run is as much about what’s going on inside your head as about the physical effort. So what mental strategies can be helpful?

Sometimes thinking about a whole long distance all at once can be overwhelming and cause anxiety. This can make the body tense up, and the mind can get into a negative feedback loop. It’s important to avoid this – either by breaking down the whole challenge into smaller tasks that feel more achievable, or through focus or distraction. Here are some specific suggestions for how to do it…


1. Break it down:

Mentally divide the overall distance into 3 or 4 shorter runs, which each seem less intimidating. Have an identifiable start and finish point for each of those shorter runs that you visualise as you run that section.


This works particularly well if you include regular routes you’re very familiar with. For example, a 20 km run can be formed from one 8-km run route you run frequently, then a varied 6-km route, plus a final different 6-km route to finish (again on a familiar route, but different from the first 8-kms)


If you’re marathon training, the idea of running eight kilometres will probably feel more manageable and comfortable, so mentally telling yourself you’re on an eight km course is much easier to get your head around.


2. Count in low numbers:

Count the smallest number of miles/km. I personally like to count upwards to 10 and then downwards to the end of my run, keeping the number in my head in single digits. It’s less scary than thinking “I’ve still got 18 km left!” or “I’ve run 16 km and I’ve still not finished!”


3. Use mini goals:

If I’m struggling on a run (of any distance), I’ll make myself stop thinking about how many km/miles it is until I finish, and instead focus on a not-too-distant point that feels very achievable. For me, this is usually a landmark – the next cross-roads, a large tree, a gateway perhaps – that is around half a kilometre away. If I ask myself “Can I just get to there?” the answer is always “Yes”. This stops me thinking about the enormity of running a long way, and keeps me focused but relaxed and calm.


4. Don’t let the negative thoughts in:

Be really aware of when you are starting to have negative thoughts. At this point, do your best to refocus and think of something positive. Try to stay in the moment. If you need a distraction, try listening to podcasts, which can be a great way to occupy your brain without the disruption of music which may be a different beat from your movement.


5. Get into a rhythm:

Perhaps the ultimate mental strategy is to avoid thinking too much at all. Many endurance runners find that there are whole sections of training runs or races where the mind switches off and the body moves in rhythmic repetition. When this goes hand-in-hand with smooth, fast running, it’s called “flow”.


The simplicity of rhythmic running can be encouraged by using tricks like counting or repeating mantras. Focusing on mental repetition of a set of positive words, such as “Form – Flow – Relax – Drive”, in a steady rhythm, can be a very helpful device for focusing the mind and body.


In really tough sections of a run, some runners also find it helpful to use counting, for example counting every 2nd or 4th step, up to 100. Paula Radcliffe famously used this technique in her marathon races. The tactic helps switch off the nagging voice telling you to stop running.


6. Distraction – make it sociable:

For a lot of people, the answer to getting through long runs is to do them with friends. Of course, the company and conversation can help the distance fly by, and with friendly encouragement runners can support each other through tough patches.


However, it is important to ensure running partners are positive people who will keep the mood upbeat, and who are running at a similar enough pace to you for the run to feel comfortable for everyone. The longer the run, the more important this becomes.


7. Beware of data:

Keeping a close eye on your watch might not always be helpful. For example, monitoring your mileage as it increases can give your brain the message that your body must be getting tired. “Oh I’ve just run 14 km, and I’ve still got another six to go!”


Similarly, if you keep looking at your pace and see it slowing, it can give your brain the message that your body must be getting more fatigued. Consciously or subconsciously, you feel a little worse for it. If this happens, try to avoid looking at your watch.


8. Secret trick for a better finish:

I like to play a little trick on myself when I’m about two km from the end of a long run: I imagine that I still have further to go than my actual finish point, say four km left instead of two, and I visualise the remaining route to the end of the four km.


It might sound daft, but it’s remarkably effective. Instead of feeling my body tire and tighten as it normally would at the end of a long run, I stay loose and relaxed, ensuring enough energy and effort is left to get me that extra (imaginary) bit further. Invariably, I reach my actual end point feeling a little bit better than I would have done without the mental trickery, and I’m not completely spent.