The Mindful Marathon: How to Stay Mentally Composed During a Race

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Fall race season is officially in gear. There are some great training plans out there to help you reach your physical goal, but what about the mental aspect?

People often ask me what I think about when I run and what I do when a race is going badly. In ultra-running, we call it going into the “pain cave.” It happens in marathons too, usually around mile 20 (or as early as mile 13, if you’ve started out too fast, which I’ve definitely done).

Here’s my trick for staying in a positive place. It’s my running meditation, and I do it constantly throughout all my races — from 5Ks all the way to 100-mile finish lines.

1. Do a mental scan of your body, starting with your brain.
What’s going on in your head right now? Are you feeling strong and grounded, or are you freaking out? Ask yourself: What do I need right now? Then turn the answer into an affirmation. For example, if I answered “energy” then I’ll tell myself, “I am energized.” I’ll repeat this over and over. Sometimes I even imagine weird stuff like the video game Pac-Man, and the little pellets and ghosts he would eat for energy along the way. I pretend I’m getting energized with every step I take. It sounds crazy but it works.

A mantra is another great way to keep your head on track. The best mantras are positive, simple and calming. Try, “I am built for this,” “I’m doing this,” or “Keep going.” Maybe your mantra requires bacon, or cupcakes (or bacon-wrapped cupcakes?). Go with whatever works for you. No one’s judging your mantra.

2. Now bring your attention to your face.
Relax your face. Take a deep breath. Smile—it will instantly make you feel better. Keep breathing.

3. Bring your attention to your neck and shoulders.
Tense? Take a deep breath and relax. Bring your shoulders down away from your ears. Shake your arms. Imagine you are carrying trays of glasses like a waiter—your shoulders will instantly relax. Now gently pump your arms. Forward and back, making sure not to cross them in front of your body. Not sure what to do with your hands? Visualize holding a potato chip with your thumb and index finger, and you’re putting it in your pocket. It’s odd but totally works.

4. Bring attention to your heart.
If it’s before mile 20 and your heart is racing, perhaps you need to slow down a hair. See how it feels when you visualize your heart feeling calm and relaxed.

5. Now bring attention to your stomach.
Take a deep belly breath into your diaphragm. Keep breathing like this. Feel your lungs fill with oxygen — exactly what your legs need right now.

6. Bring your attention to your legs, shins and feet.
How do they feel? Fast and strong? Great! Legs feeling heavy? Any muscle cramps? Just plain tired? Remind yourself it’s perfectly normal. Then relax. Imagine blood and oxygen circulating through your lower extremities. Know that all of the cells in your body are working for you right now.

7. Now lean your whole body slightly forward.
Let gravity propel you toward the finish line. Pump your arms. Lighten your step. Look forward.

You’re doing this, you’re built for this, keep going. Breathe. Smile.

jenn pattee bio picJenn Pattee is a competitive ultrarunner, outdoor fitness maven and relentless pursuer of playtime. She founded San Francisco’s Basic Training in 2008. Every morning and evening, she and her team of instructors take groups of dedicated amateur athletes through scenic trail runs and innovative cross-training routines designed to increase endurance, flexibility, core strength and speed. She recently wrote about preparing for your first 5K.

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