Mental training: how to prepare your mind for a race

You’ve signed up for a marathon and are ready to tackle the training. You’ve got a 20 week training plan, strength and ab workouts, and a 10 class-pack to the local yoga studio.

But running is as much a mental sport as it is physical, and it’s just as important to train your mind as it is your body – especially when you’re preparing for longer distance races like a half or a full marathon.

That’s because when you bonk, hit the wall, and just can’t keep going anymore, your legs aren’t to blame – it’s your head.

According to Runner’s World, “It’s not lactate levels in your blood or oxygen shortages in your muscles that force you to slow down, it’s how your brain interprets those signals … The effort of running is only as hard as your brain perceives it to be.”

You can, however, train your brain to become accustomed to mental fatigue, making running hard – at a certain pace and for a certain distance – feel easier.

So how do you mentally train for a race?


Here are a few things you can do before a race to get yourself in the right headspace.

  • VISUALIZE. Your body doesn’t know the difference between actually doing something, and just thinking about doing something. Therefore by visualizing yourself running a marathon, in excruciating detail from start to finish, you’re preparing your mind to run that race. On race day, you’ll be mentally ready to tackle your goal since as far as your brain is concerned, you’ve already completed that task multiple times. The key here is to focus on everything: from the weather to the color of your shoes to the smell of your GU. The more details the better. Also – don’t just visualize the positive. Prepare for the worst. See yourself getting a cramp. An upset stomach. Knee pain. Etc. From there, imagine yourself tackling the hurdle and succeeding anyways. That way, if something does go wrong during the race, your mind will know how to handle it, and you’ll feel more confident toeing the start . Want to get started with visualization? Try the activacuity app.
  • PUSH THROUGH. When you’ve had a mentally exhausting day at work – when your mind is simply drained – running feels harder, even if you’re running your normal pace, distance, and route. While it may tempting to skip a run after a stressful, hard day – don’t. By running through the fog, you’re training your mind to push through the mentally challenging parts of a race – for most of us, that’s the middle miles when the adrenaline of the start has worn off and the finish line is still a ways away.
  • MOVING MEDITATION. It’s crucial to be present and stay in the moment when you’re running any distance – but especially longer distances like a half or full marathon. You don’t want to be freaking out about what’s to come or dwelling on the past. This can be a challenge, though, so it’s important to practice before race day. During your training runs, for 3 to 5 minutes, really focus on your breathing. Don’t listen to music, daydream, problem-solve, etc. – just inhale and exhale. Inhale and exhale. Listen to your footsteps, take in your surroundings – the smell of the air, the feel of your clothes – and just experience the run. (Note: you should probably do this on a path without obstacles and traffic lights; that way you can engage safely in your meditation.)

In addition, there are also a few things you can do during a race to give yourself a mental edge, including:

  • At a rest stop, when you grab some Gatorade, don’t swallow it right away. Slosh it around in your mouth for a bit. This sends a signal to your brain that more fuel is on the way, decreasing your sense of effort.
  • Smile. We all have a race face we make when we’re struggling – and you brain knows it. From biting your bottom lip to furrowing your brow, this sends a message to your mind that you’re suffering. That things are hard. But if you smile, your brain gets distracted.
  • Repeat a positive mantra. Instead of focusing how much your legs hurt, how your sports bra is chafing, how you’re a failure because you didn’t hit your last split, tell yourself you’re awesome. Tell yourself you’re strong. You’re powerful. You are badass. Don’t be surprised if after a few miles of this, you start to feel strong, powerful, and badass – and cruise across the finish line.

Have you had any experiences – good or bad – with the mental side of running?