Mind games: How to keep a strong head when distance running

“Marathon running, the toughest of all sports, is all in the mind.” 

That’s according to Olympic Gold medallist and co-founder of the London Marathon, Chris Brasher.

The physical training needed to run a marathon is well-documented.

You set your speed and distance goals, gradually increase your mileage, stretch to avoid injury and make sure your nutritional intake is on point. Simple, right? But what happens when your own thoughts turn against you? 

The mind needs to be trained to maximise its power, and you need a selection of psychological crutches to lean on when the odds are against you.

From Paula Radcliffe counting to block out negative thoughts and push through physical discomfort, to Jo Pavey setting mini-goals, we look at five techniques to strengthen the mind and smash through the wall


As physiologist and running coach Janet Hamilton says, when the going gets tough, “a lot of runners need to tune out for a while and focus on something else.”

This could be focusing on a favourite song or making a mental shopping list, for example, to block out negativity. When Paula Radcliffe smashed the women’s marathon world record in the 2003 London Marathon, she coped with the pain of the last few miles by counting to 100 again and again.

But Hamilton cautions runners not lose touch with their bodies completely: “It’s important to focus on their physical well-being, by asking: When was the last time I hydrated? Am I holding my shoulders right?”

[WATCH] Paula Radcliffe push through to the finish line at the 2003 London Marathon…


We are often urged to visualise the positive thoughts – leading the pack, cresting the hill, crossing the line—but it’s just as important to prepare for the tough bits too.

Mental performance coach Andy Barton, who has worked with Olympians, urges runners to imagine themselves dealing with the more stressful elements of a race. “And then imagine being able to overcome them – being drawn by the crowds at key moments, focusing on your breathing, or setting yourself small goals.” By tackling the most challenging moments, you’ll be ready to meet them head on.


When you pass the first mile marker, it’s all too easy to focus, not on the progress you are making, but on the many miles still to come. It means your mind leaps ahead, and instead of focusing on the present moment, you begin to worry about the future.

As Barton says, ideally you want to be in the zone—in a present state…

“The best way to stay in the moment is to set yourself small goals”.

“People can work well to different lengths: a mile, a kilometre or just that lamp post in the distance. But that’s all you focus on: then you set another one. Then another one. And that makes a big difference because you are staying more in the moment than focusing on the distance, which is where all the anxiety is.”

Distance runner and European Championships gold medallist, Jo Pavey breaks her long runs and marathons into manageable chunks. “I use mini-goals and focus on my breathing and the rhythm of my legs.”

[WATCH] 40 year old Joe Pavey win 10,000m final at the 2014 European Athletics Championships…



It’s relatively easy to stick to your training plan when running alone, but when competing in an organised event, external factors can distract you, from the crowd to other runners.

Lecturer in Sport Psychology at Kent’s School of Sport and Exercise Sciences, Dr Carla Meijen, says that because of this there is a risk of starting at a much faster pace than normal and peaking too early. “Runners should focus on running their own race—at larger events there will be different pace groups—they should follow the one that is closest to the time-based goal they have set.”


When times get tough and doubts start to creep in, having a tried and tested mantra can give you a much needed confidence boost. Indeed, mantra is a Sanskrit word which literally means ‘instrument for thinking.’

As sports psychologist, Stephen Walker Ph.D. says, “Repeating choice words whenever you need to focus helps direct your mind away from negative thoughts and towards a positive experience.”

Different mantras will resonate with different people, but effective mantras are usually short, instructive, positive and dynamic. When Deena Kastor won the Chicago Marathon in 2005 her mantra was simple: ‘Define yourself’. It worked – she became the first American to win a major marathon since 1994.

[WATCH] Deena Kastor win the 2005 Chicago Marathon…


Your mind can be your downfall, or it can be your protector. Long distance running brings with it a personal battle, one that goes on between your ears. Between you and your self.

In short, it’s up to you to find your own formula, to uncover the techniques that work for you and invest in your own mental resilience over time. So arm yourself with the approaches in this article and find your groove.

Want more like this? Read: 3 ways to hit the perfect running pace