Mind over marathon: What to do when your body wants to quit

My BQ attempt at the Goodlife Fitness Victoria last year, ignoring the pain!

I wish I could train for a marathon without running those 3-hour-plus long training runs. No matter how beautiful my running route is and how interesting the podcasts I listen to during my long runs are, I always start thinking about how hungry, tired and chaffed I am and how much I just want to stop running and be back at home.

I guess I sort of skipped the long runs in 2013 during training, but that’s because I already put in those once weekly 3-5 hour long run days several months before while I was training for the Squamish 50. Then I took a two-month break, got up one day and ran 24 km, and then ran a marathon a week later.

I know there are marathon training methods where your longest training run is only about 25 km. These plans also include several longer runs (12-16 km) per week, plus a day or two of strength training and a tempo run. Although the proponents of this method say your endurance will be marathon-ready and you are less likely to overtrain and injure yourself by skipping the once-per-week high mileage runs (which may be true), here’s why I don’t like that method: you miss out on training your brain.

As I mentioned in this post, a lot of what’s going on when you hit the wall during a marathon, usually in the last 10 kilometres of the race, is because of your brain. When you run for 3-plus hours and start getting exhausted, your brain will tell your body to stop long before it reaches it physiological threshold; in other words, your brain is telling you to stop even though you actually have enough fuel left in the tank to keep going. According to exercise scientist Dr. Tim Noakes, this theory, called the central governor theory, is “based around the premise that the brain will override your physical ability to run and ‘shut the body down’ before you’re able to do serious or permanent damage to yourself.” Obviously, you don’t want to completely ignore these signals and run until you pass out. But as this article suggests, there are ways “you can improve your ability to tolerate physical discomfort and prepare your mind for the physical demands you plan to place in it.”

Pretending to feel great during the last 10 K

Pretending to feel great during the last 10 K

And this is why I think those 30, 34 and 36 kilometres runs are necessary when training to race 42.2. I usually start getting fatigued and grumpy around the 25-27 km mark during my training runs, and practice positive self-talk and meditation methods to work through it. Just like you need to practice running, pacing and fueling your body before your race, you also need to train your brain so it will work for you instead of against you on race day.

Try this: Think, feel, relax

I took this little mantra from an AudioDharma podcast about mindfulness that I listened to during my long training runs last year: When things start to tighten up in your body or you feel pain in your legs and you start to slow down, try focusing in on the area where the pain or tightness is coming from while thinking of the word think, then truly feel that area and pay attention to what hurts (try imagining exactly what is causing the pain, like a muscle tightening) while thinking of the word feel. Next, take a deep breath in and tell it to relax as you breathe out. It’s amazing how well this works; even for side stitches. Try it and let me know if it works!

What marathon training method do you use? How long is your longest training run usually? Do you have any methods for dealing with the discomfort of the last 10 K?