Running the Mental Marathon

Take some positive thoughts or themes with you to reflect upon when the going gets tough.
Lisa Bentley, one of Ironman's most revered runners, once told me the hardest thing about running an Ironman marathon is that it is "just such a long time to concentrate."


Through years of working together and tweaking her mental preparation process, we have refined how she prepares herself mentally and emotionally for such a difficult, sustained effort.

When thinking about the Ironman marathon, all athletes feel some degree of apprehension. It is a very long way to run off an already challenging bike leg, and it is the hardest part of the race, physically, which makes it the hardest part of the race psychologically, too. These challenges are, of course, the very allure of Ironman: to go farther or faster than ever before; to do something exceptional that most people never dream of.

Are you ready to will yourself forward, to keep your legs moving to get over the next hill, through the exposed windy section, survive the heat, and be diligent enough to stick to your pacing, hydration, and nutrition plan? Consider these four steps to refine your psychological preparation for the Ironman marathon.

Step 1: Think about how you want to treat yourself

It is easy to slip into a spiral of negative self-talk and doubt when you are facing another 20 miles of running and you are very tired -- particularly if things aren't clicking. Predetermine an emotional reason for being out there, or a personal theme. Perhaps it is to inspire your family or kids to go after their dreams. Perhaps it is just to constantly remind yourself that you have chosen an exceptional thing to do with your life journey.

Or perhaps it is to remind yourself that you are an amazing athlete and person for even toeing the line of such a race.

Take some positive thoughts or themes with you to reflect upon when the going gets tough. These tools can also lift you to another level of performance when things are on track and progressing well. Decide that no matter how things are progressing you are going to treat yourself with respect and speak kindly to yourself.

Step 2: Know the run course

If you ever had to run an Ironman marathon on your favorite training route at home, chances are you would perform much better. You would know every hill gradient, where the shade is, the wind tendencies, cambers, how to run the tangents, etc. You would have a good sense of how to apportion your energy and where you are needed to be exceptionally strong and focused. You would know how to push through the challenging areas because you have done it before.

With this in mind, it is important to give yourself as much of a home-course advantage as possible in your Ironman marathon. Ideally, you will do a training camp on the course a few months before the event to learn and master the course. If that isn't possible, tour the course on race week and run portions of it in your race-taper sessions.

Ride the marathon course on your bike. Take a map and pen and write notes on what you see out there. Try to identify landmarks along the way that are at critical sections of the course. Your goal is to be able to retire to your hotel room at the end of the day and have a fairly clear picture of the course in your mind, with some notes handy to reflect upon.

Step 3: Prepare yourself for the effort

Having learned the racecourse, revisit some of your best training efforts from back home and review how they felt as you progressed. Next, place that mental image of your training efforts on specific areas of the Ironman marathon course.

It is important to be realistic but not fearful of the effort it will take to tackle the marathon. Be levelheaded in assessing your skills and abilities, as well. It is a recipe for disaster for you to expect to greatly exceed anything you have done consistently in training, as you will find it deflating if you are missing the mark.

Mentally rehearse what it will feel like to have a steady and solid day out there, the level of effort required and the biomechanical elements of your best Ironman marathon stride. How will you feel at three miles, six, 12, 20 and so on?

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