Six secrets to becoming a motivated, successful marathon runner

Are you one of the thousands of people who have signed up to run a marathon? Whether you are an experienced runner, or this is your first time, you may be feeling a little daunted at the task ahead of you. Athletes and sports psychologists will tell you that in order to run a marathon, you need to train your mind as much as your body.  So many runners are hampered by race-day nerves, getting in the way of confidence and performance; or they struggle with maintaining motivation.


So, based on the latest research, and in conjunction with elite athletes and coaches, I outline six secrets to beating marathon stress, to help you improve your performance and become a better, faster runner.

The secrets to beating marathon stress

1. Positivity

Notice what you are telling yourself when you are running. If you are filling your head with negative thoughts, this will transfer to your running. Instead, try telling yourself what you would like to happen, how you would like to be, think, feel and behave. For example, if you lack the motivation to train, imagine yourself excitedly lacing up your shoes on a sunny day. Practice reframing your negative thoughts to a more positive direction. For example, turn “I don’t want to run today” into “I will feel successful after I complete today’s run”. Develop a habit of seeing opportunities instead of problems.

You can practice using positive affirmations, or mantras. Take time to create some positive phrases that will motivate and inspire you to keep on running, and that you can believe in. Keep it simple, for example, “one mile at a time” or “I can do it”. Write them on sticky notes and display them around your house, get a reminder to flash up on your phone, or rehearse repeating them in your head.

Another trick is to harness the power of your imagination by visualising your desired outcome: picture yourself fitter, faster and leaner. Or imagine yourself on marathon day, successfully crossing the finish line. Put in as much detail as you can, include all the sights, sounds, and smells. You could even create a short video in your head featuring you getting up on marathon morning, eating breakfast, crossing the start line, pacing your run, fuelling as you had planned and crossing the finish line with a smile. Replay the video in your head each day to help build positivity and self-belief.

2. Purpose

When the going gets tough, it can be helpful to understand your ‘why’: to remind yourself why you set yourself this challenge. Having a clear narrative explaining your decision to run is a great resource to call on when you might be struggling. Write it, draw it or record yourself talking about it, and try to include the emotions, logical thoughts and previous experiences that lead you there.

Part of this, of course, is to set yourself goals. We set goals in order to give our training meaning and direction. But having only one goal can set you up for disappointment. High-level coaches and sports psychologists encourage their athletes to set ‘tiers’ of goals, or levels of success. First set your optimal goal, then break this down into two-three manageable back-ups that you will still consider a win. It’s important to realise that “success” is not a binary phenomenon; it’s a spectrum.

Remember – you run because you love running! Remind yourself of all the ways running brings you intrinsic pleasure and what it is about running that you love. Focus on the joy - find what excites you about running, and do a lot more of that.

3. Practice relaxation

Research has shown that during a marathon, elite athletes constantly remind or tell themselves to 'relax', and 'stay loose'. Learning techniques to keep calm, relax the body and save energy can help all runners. Experiment with breathing tips, running techniques and mindfulness exercises to help your head deal with any panics along the run. One technique is to focus on your breathing: controlled, relatively deep rhythmic breathing is the key to relaxation. When you breathe out, try to imagine the tension leaving your body.

Try to remain relaxed while running, but be aware of tension and fatigue in your muscles. Try carrying out a body scan; start from the head and work down, giving each area or group of muscles your attention. If you notice tension, try to focus on a cue word, such as ‘relax’ or ‘easy’ and try to let the tension flow out of the muscles.

Alongside this, practice acceptance. There may be times when you feel overwhelmed, both in training and on race day. Accepting that there will be bad training days and bad miles along each run is the starting point to managing this. Instead of fighting the feeling, leading to additional stress or tension, accepting where you are releases negativity and allows you to work towards change

4. Perspective

Regularly review your progress and notice all the ways you are improving. This might be enhanced respiration, a better running technique, an improved mood, or a sense of accomplishment and pride. Acknowledging our minor improvements helps us realise we are one day closer to keeping our commitment to ourselves. And with regular analysis of your progress, you can adapt your goal and approach race day confident in the belief that you can achieve it.

The marathon distance can be overwhelming and focusing on how long you have left to go is pointless. Focus on what you can do in the current mile to make running easier on your body and mind. Break up your run into manageable chunks and give each of these a particular focus. Tick off each milestone as it passes by and don’t look too far ahead. Look at what is within your control right now, and focus on the process, not the outcome. Remember, winning or losing isn’t running, only running is running!

Although it can be helpful to identify some runners to pace yourself against, it is important to run your own race. Remember, if someone overtakes you, it does not matter; you are not here to be that person. Remind yourself that they are doing their own thing and you will do yours. Concentrate on maintaining your pace and form, and the competitors around you. Beware of the highly curated images of happy runners on social media, and avoid getting wrapped up in a cycle of comparing yourself with others.

5. Pay attention

While you are running, focus on feeling really connected with your body. Research has shown that elite marathon runners use an associative strategy which helps them run better. Throughout the race, pay very close attention to breathing pattern, stride, foot strike, cadence, posture and any tension or muscle fatigue. Be aware of any sensations you notice in your feet, calves and thighs. When you're in tune with your body, you tend to run with better form, have better arm swing, and maintain pace – all things that can allow you to run stronger.

Be aware: pay attention to external data relating to the run. This includes things like looking for mile markers, road signs or feed stations along the route; or checking your watch for pace, lap time, or heart rate.

Focus on your time, not your pace. Research found that whereas elite athletes pay close attention to time, they let their pace be governed by reading their bodies. By motoring their bodily sensations, the athletes are able to adjust their pace, respiration and technique. This enables them to avoid pain.

6. Preparation

Right from the start, try to form good habits. In order to meet your goals, your body needs to be physically prepared to take on the challenge. Attend to the basics, ensuring you get good sleep, hydration and nutrition. Build mental toughness by exposing yourself to stress through regular long runs, consistent workouts, progressive mileage and regular racing. And save psychological stress by making these behaviours non-negotiable habits.

On the day of the race, it’s really important to plan your day. Much marathon anxiety comes from runners not being organised and becoming overwhelmed by logistics. Know in advance your pre-race breakfast, your race day clothing, your food, drink and gadgets, and everything else that is important for you on race day. Plan your journey to the race, figure out how long it takes to get there, what public transport is available or where you will park.

Develop the habit of incorporating sport psychology into every training run to help reduce anxiety and improve performance on race day. Because all the skills I talk about here are based on sports psychology, cognitive behavioural therapy, hypnotherapy, mindfulness and meditation processes, they each affect the way you run and how you approach running and training. Your mind needs repetition to remember things.

One way to reinforce these skills is through self-hypnosis. You can record yourself talking through the messages you want to retain, then listen to it regularly.  Alternatively, you can download a session created by a professional hypnotherapist; please see my website.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Hypnotherapy Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London, N12
Written by Nicole Valens, Clinical Hypnotherapist MA, DipHypCS, AdDipPC
London, N12

Nicole Valens is an experienced, qualified hypnotherapist and counsellor, specialising in the treatment of anxiety, stress and PTSD. She will give you a safe and confidential space to gently explore your issues, and work with you to find solutions, develop coping strategies and make the positive changes that will help make your life better.

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