Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Prepare Your Mind First

If you are training for a race and are scared/uncertain/psyched-out, if you’ve ever wanted to quit when the going gets tough, if you have a Wellington celebrates winning last year\'s Challenge Roth triathlon with a new long-distance world record.history of pushing yourself but find that your brain sometimes doesn’t work in your favor - YOU need to read an article posted on CNN Health today.  It was written by four-time World Ironman champ, Chrissie Wellington. She reminds us of the importance of training our minds, even ahead of training our bodies. She states, “All the physical strength in the world won't help you if your mind is not prepared.”

We’ve heard it before – train your brain. We know that mental strength is a huge component to meeting our goals. Yet, how much do we diligently and conscientiously work on developing the brain power that is so desperately needed when every cell of our being wants to stop, when every fiber of our muscles is screaming for mercy, when we just don’t feel like doing it anymore?

Mental strength is not only for racing. It is for every day training. It is what gets us out of the door in the morning to run ten miles. It is what gives us that extra push when it’s raining and cold and we’d prefer to walk to the nearest 7-11 for a pussy pick-up from our spouse or mother-in-law. It is what keeps us in the game for 16+ weeks of marathon or tri training.

Chrissie gives some excellent tips for improving mental strength:

Have a mantra and/or a special song to repeat  Chrissie says, “I write my mantra on my water bottle and on my race wristband. Seeing it gives me a boost and reminds me never to let my head or heart drop.”

For me, my favorite mantra is, “Pain is temporary, quitting is forever.” This always brings me back to a place of knowing that I will not be this tired, uncomfortable, crampy, pukish for the rest of my life.

Keep a bank of positive mental images  Wellington tells us these images can be of family and friends, of previous races, of beautiful scenery, or a big greasy burger. She encourages us to draw on these images when we want to quit. and tells us to punch out the negative thinking before it manifests.

My mental image is often my couch, a book, a custard filled long john and a hot cup of coffee. Or a hot bath.


There is nothing to see under those bubbles

Practice visualization beforehand – Her advice? “Relax your mind and go through each stage of the race one step at a time -- mentally imagining yourself performing at your peak but also successfully overcoming potential problems.” She reminds us that Before Michael Phelps has even entered the water, he has already completed the race in his mind. And won.

Personally, I often drive the course before a race so that I can imagine myself on the course and how I will cope at certain sections (hills, etc.). If possible, training on the exact course where you will be racing is an amazing way to make your visualizing very specific. I did this with my 70.3 triathlon last year and it was immensely helpful. I am certain that is why I far exceeded my expectations on the bike portion.


Break the race up into smaller, more manageable segments – This has been one of the most important racing techniques for me, personally. For example, I break my marathon up into 4-five milers with a 10K at the end. I like to focus on getting to the next aid station and telling myself I can grab a cup of water and walk through if I’d like.

Chrissie reminds us, “Stay in the moment and don't think too far ahead. I also try to breathe deeply and rhythmically; if you calm your breath, you can help calm your mind.”

Remember that training is about learning to hurt – This is difficult if you can be a pussy like me. “Push your physical limits and overcome them in training sessions, so that when you race you know that you have successfully endured pain and discomfort. You will draw confidence and peace of mind from this knowledge," Chrissie tells us. It’s okay to cry if you need to.

Get people to support you – If it feels right for you, invite people to come out and support you. In the words of Will Ferrell, “More cowbell please!”


Little Emma waiting for her mama at the Phoenix Rock ‘n Roll Marathon 2009

Mentally recall inspirational people – When I ran Boston last year with very little training, this was one of the most important things that mentally got me through the race. At that time, my son’s teacher was fighting for his life after getting a serious bacterial infection. I wore a bracelet dedicated to this teacher and when the going got tough  (which it did for every second beyond mile ten), I felt the bracelet on my wrist, and remembered Mr. Cribby (he ended up winning the fight and is now back teaching full time!). In the future it will be Sherry who gets me through the tough parts of races.


I am fake smiling here. I was hurting. You can see the red Cribby bracelet on my right arm.

Consider racing for a cause that is bigger than yourself – YES! Taking your racing to a higher level in terms of meaning and purpose. Chrissie states so eloquently, “Champions come and go, but to me the real judge of my personal success will be whether I actually do something positive with the opportunities I have been given.”


How do you train your brain for races? Would you add anything to the list? For me, Chrissie covered the big ones. Sometimes it helps me to incorporate small rewards into my races – such as if music is allowed, I wait until mile 13 of a marathon before I “let” myself listen to it.  



  1. Awesome tips....of course in your own hilarious way!!!

  2. Thanks Beth! Needed this today. Great post!

  3. Beth, THANK YOU, for this post. I've been sitting on my hands waiting for I don't know what, trying to muster enough confidence and courage to sign up online officially for the Marine Corps Marathon this October by joining Team Lung Love to raise money for the Lung Cancer Alliance (in memory of my mom). It will be my first full marathon, and I'm sorta a newbie-ish runner. I'm scared and excited at the same time, and I've been waiting for the big push. Thanks to you and to that CNN article, I'm going to prepare my mind first, sign up...and then throw up. lol. Great post! Thank you!

    1. Marie - so awesome - I am honored to have been part of what pushed you over the edge to sign up. What an amazing race to do with your mom in mind. I might be at MCM too!

  4. My mantra is usually something like "don't think, just go".

    I had a great coach a long time ago. He used to say that most of what held people back was fear...most often fear of the pain. He told us to go after the pain...hit the pain point as early in the race as possible and then we needn't fear it any longer.

    I tend to have my mental issues pre-race...though I must admit, there is a point in every race where I need to slap myself into staying in the game. This 'slap' takes many different forms.

    I, too, break races up into small pieces and take each piece on one at a time. I break my half marathons up mile by mile. My 5K's into half-miles. When it starts to get mentally tougher, I adjust that to make smaller pieces.

    These are some great tips from a great athlete...thanks for sharing them with us!

    1. X- I love what your coach said. I do think it is fear of pain, being tired, not being able to do it that holds us back. Once we face that, what else is there to fear?

  5. Great post! I enjoyed your take on it. When I did my last marathon, in the spring, I had not let myself eat a gross nasty filet o fish sandwich for the final 2 months of training. I wanted one so bad, and told myself I could have one at the end. I actually had people lined up to get me one. Too bad I felt so sick afterwards that I had to wait a few DAYS to get one, since when I thought about them again, I thought about how sick I felt after the race. I wish I always felt sick BEFORE eating at McDonald's, though, so I wouldn't do it at all, instead of waiting until after.

    1. Love this!! Your mantra should be "Filet 0-Fish, you are my marathon wish" or something goofy like that.

  6. How do you eat the elephant?

    One bite at a time.

    Every endurance/adventure race, marathon, century ride, triathlon....it's all about eating the elephant.

    Thanks, Beth. :-)

  7. Great post! I am training for my first half-marathon in June. At the same time, I'm trying to sell my house. Immediately after the half, I plan on trying to get pregnant with my 2nd child. I will SO need the motivation and tips you provide every day. Thank you.

    P.S. I just read the book Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. It's about Olympic runner Louis Zamperini and his crazy story of being a POW during WWII instead of running in the 1940 Olympics (that were cancelled because of the war). While it's horrifying reading about the atrocities of war, it is also amazingly inspiring. If LZ can endure everything he did, I can stinking finish a half-marathon, yes? YES! I highly recommend the book (with the caveat of gruesome war details).

    1. I read that book too and really enjoyed it. Even the gory stuff.

    2. You should review books on your blog! Or maybe you have a favorite books list? Or maybe you posted something like that before I started reading you? I'd be interested in what you've read that inspires you, both as a mother and as an athlete.

    3. I agree with EWH!!

  8. Breaking everything up in smaller races is what has been helping me. Each 5k or mile or street sign. I spent most of last year music-free but this year, I have been using my ipod a little bit more as it is a good distraction from whatever is hurting.

  9. My mantra is "you can always quit. No one will care but you'll always know.". I guess I'm motivated by not being a loser in my own mind. I also like to sing "Here Comes The Sun" because things always get better and sunnier.

  10. Thanks I soooo needed this. It's my mind that quits before my legs. Just had a bad half a few months ago and I am trying to shake it (mentally).

  11. I haven't really said it outloud much, or with much sincerity, but I'm considering signing up to run my first full marathon in 2013. (Eeek!!) I've done a few halves, only completely running the last one, but suddenly I find myself wanting a full on my dossier. I'm rather terrified (and excited) at the thought and I know from experience that mental toughness will be what gets be through it.

    The last half I ran I hadn't trained nearly as much as I wanted to so I went into it with no expectations, but I discovered a little tiny Marine Corps drill sergeant buried in my head about mile 10, and that voice came through loud and clear when I contemplated walking or the pain became nearly overwhelming. When I turned the corner at mile 13 and saw the finish, I broke out in the ugly cry, running with my elbow over my face. My point is that my body was completely done for but my mind wouldn't allow it to quit. I learned alot about myself that day. (And I PR'd. Big time.)

  12. Yup, well said.

    I remember Mr Cribby, glad he's doing well 8)

    I might add "don't forget to fuel!" if you let your blood sugar get low, your brain starts to think daaark (and stupid) thoughts. An injection of your favorite food (e.g. , for me, a caffeinated GU Roctane) might be just what you need. I have been surprised how quickly that can revive my energy (in minutes)!

  13. thank you for the link
    I need help in that aspect of racing...that and fuelling but that is whole other topic...this weekend I raced my best half marathon so far and I think I am making progress on the mental aspect of the 13.1 miles

  14. A much needed post - thank you! Breaking the race up into smaller segments helped me get through my stomach issues in Sunday's race. I'm starting to feel like I'm making some progress on the mental training. Now I'm off to read that article!

  15. I think some people mess themselves up in training because they always avail themselves of something that won't be there in the race, music for example. The training should be harder than the race, or at least the last part of the training.

  16. Thanks Beth!! I just registered for my first marathon on Friday (Niagara Falls International 10/2012)and I totally needed this. The moment when I hit the send button to submit my registration was like the floor came out from under me. I immediately thought...OMG...am I really ready for this? I've been plagued with injuries...my confidence is at an all-time low, but I want to reach this goal so bad that I just took the leap of faith.

  17. I really needed this today...I find myself hitting a wall of BLAH...so thanks. I needed help remotivating.

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  19. This is so true. I trained for and ran my first marathon, Chicago last year. This was the big one, my one and only, for my 49th birthday. The culmination of a lifetime of running. Followed my training plan to the "t". Ran 4 halfs, all under 2:00. Did my 20 miler in 3:18. Was shooting for a sub 4:30 finish. One minor detail, the night before the marathon, my parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. Otherwise, I did everything I was supposed to. Ate a meat free pasta dinner. Left the party in time to get 8 hours of sleep. Prior to the marathon, reviewed the route. Watched all the preparatory videos. Was very good about the taper. which was by far, the hardest part of the training for me! Yet, my nerves got the best of me. The day of the marathon was hot. But I trained in much warmer and more humid conditions. Nerves. By mile 8, I was drained. I knew then that I was in trouble. By mile 14, I cramped up, something I had never experienced in all my years of running. By mile 18, I called my husband in tears to come pick me up. He (thankfully) refused and told me to walk. I saw people dropping to the ground, people vomiting. I kept on. If there was a photog, I picked up the pace. Near the finish line, I saw my sister, her family, and my mom. I almost cried! I plugged along to the finish. I felt physically horrible when I was done. Next to giving birth, it was the hardest thing I have ever done. I'd like to redeem myself and run a better race, but I'm still nursing some injuries from all that. All I can say is, you can be physically ready, but it really is a mental race. Thanks for posting this.

  20. A wonderful post...we can all use this. Thanks Beth!

  21. Okay, for my first marathon-nashville 2011-i wrote "shut up and run" on my arm with a Sharpie . . . to remind my MIND to shut up, when necessary! . . It took me another 2 days to scrub off my arm. Like you, w/ Mr Cribby and Sherry, I think of friends who have suffered or passed--way too soon or damned unmercifully. You may remember a post of mine from a couple of yrs ago when you were healing from an injury and my Russian Olympic PT friend Zhenya who was suffering w/ cancer gave you the advice to use "vibration" as a healing tool:) She passed away in June, age 51. I run for her. I don't run for her cancer--I run because she can't, and she lived larger than anyone I will ever know. When I run, even while in some pain, I have a sense that I'm sucking a bigger version of life into my lungs, body, mind. So, this is how I "train" my mind 1) motivation (mantra), 2) inspiration (zhenya), 3) and logic (knowing the course and how my body responds to hills, weather, length of run, etc). Oh, and I also learned the hard way to not eat thai food the night before a race (nothing like christening 8 port-a-potties in 8 miles), and to not grab a beer from dudes who hang out in their front yard w/ 5m of marathon running left to go. Okay, so part of mind training is knowing what NOT to do!!! Thanks for your recent posts--I know it's hard to be inspiring lately, but you are!

  22. Awesome, love all the advice. My main one is positive visualization that all the olympic athletes use...except apparently I suck at it most of the time, since it doesn't always work. When it does tho, feels like I can run forever.

    Can't wait to try out these other tips!

  23. Thanks for the article and advice. I'm getting a little nervous approaching my first 5K race on March 18th. It was helpful to read.

  24. All my races/ultras/IMs have been pretty "fun" as the training was reward for putting in a full day/week of work. Never had a mantra and most of my long stuff has been by myself (like a rim-to-rim-to-rim) so there weren't any aid stations much less 'cowbell' support. The key for me is getting far enough "out there" by foot or wheel and then the only way back is by your own power. And that's empowering enough to get me home.

  25. Thank you Beth! Perfect timing for me too. I ran my first 3 miles in my life at age 48 last June, I am currently training to do my first 1/2 marathon at OKC Memorial on April 29th for my 49th birthday. I pray it goes well because the ultimate would be to do a full marathon before 50.

    I started reading your BLOG several months ago and have went back to the beginning and read them all, some more than twice. I love your writing and your wit, and look foward to each new one, its like a good friend responding to your email. You have kept me focused on my training this far and I am sure I will be thinking of your BLOGS and you on mile 10 when you say "Oh just shut up and run!". Thank You!

    1. Yes, I do believe a marathon before 50 is in the cards for you. Thank you for your kind words - amazing that you did three miles at 48 and are now doing a half!!

  26. Your posts are good but this was great....so the motivation that I needed and need right now.

    I will have to copy/paste this one to my "keeper" posts to reread as needed.


  27. I love this post. It came at the perfect time in my training.

  28. I needed this today. I am registered to do my first full marathon in June and have been thinking of switching to the half because I'm afraid I won't be able to do the distance (at least not within the time limit--I'm S-L-O-W!). This gives me what I need to press on and not give up on it so soon. Thanks, Beth!

  29. My mantra is "You can do This, You've done it Before". I always say running is 90% mental and 10% physical. Without a strong and well-trained mind just a few miles are torture. Learning to "escape" during a run in crucial especially, marathons.

  30. Hi Beth! I'm new here to SUAR and I really enjoyed this post and reading all the comments. Inspiring. I did my first half in December (on my 42 birthday) and racing for a cause was my big number one. I ran 13.1, well ran/walked 13.1 miles as a St. Jude Hero and talk about motivating. The race started under a big banner that read: GET SET ... TO RUN FOR THEIR LIVES! And I could barely make it through the St. Jude campus because I was so teary with all the families lined up cheering us on. Running onto the campus, the first person I noticed was a girl holding a bright green handmade glittery sign that read: Because you're a runner, I'm a survivor! That pretty much fueled me for the rest of the race.

    I'm such a running newb, but I'm now training for my first full and one of my mantras I guess you could call it is Fortitudine Vincimus (future tattoo, maybe), which is Latin for 'by endurance we conquer.' It came from one of my favorite books ever, Endurance by Alfred Lansing. It's about Ernest Shackleton's Arctic explorations. Totally something I didn't think I'd be interested in but I picked the book up because the title claimed it was "The Greatest Adventure Story Ever Told." And then I sooo couldn't put it down.

    Thanks again for the timely and fun-to-read post!

  31. I'm a relatively new follower (what the crap took me so long??) and I love this post. I have a mantra, but I hadn't realized it until now. I guess it's the child in me that recalls movie quotes at all times of the day and on runs I like to annoy whoever is around me by singing, "Just keep swimming, just keep swimming - just keep swimming, swimming, swimming. What do we do? We swim. Swim."

  32. Perfect post for me 10 days out from my next triathlon and dealing with some back pain and a body that is tired from endless weeks of training.

    I tell myself constantly when things get tough.."You've done the training, you can do this!" and when that fails I count 4 more arm strokes, 4 more wheel turns for 4 more footsteps. For some reason 4 works and 5 just seems too hard!

  33. I love training my brain. I am usually cursing myself out for being a pussy and that helps but I also put it into perspective . I could be in Iraq. I could have one leg. I could have this or that but instead I'm racing.

    I have a few mantras but the one I'm using lately is: The faster you go the faster this pain ends.

    I also break everything into 15 minute intervals. I can do anything for 15 minutes. And after 15 minutes I have a reward of nutrition/hydration.

  34. Sometimes I have to remind myself that it will hurt at mile 22 and that's ok. I just need to accept it and run through it.

  35. im 10 and need to do a mile tips?

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