Mental Tips for Running a Half Marathon

A young woman at a cross country running race.

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Running a half marathon tests your mental strength as much as it does your physical fitness. Each part of the race has its own mental challenges, so you need to be ready for the head games that you might play with yourself as your body begins to tire. Here are some tips for overcoming the psychological obstacles and distractions at each mile of a half marathon.

First 5 Miles: Start Out Slow

When you start your half marathon, you'll likely feel strong and confident. You might even have to tell yourself to hold back. The first few miles should feel easy—after all, you've trained to go 13.1 miles.

Running your first half slower than the second half (called a negative split) is the key to running a smart and enjoyable half marathon.

Take it slow and relaxed. Your body will thank you during the later miles.

Run Your Own Half Marathon

Don't worry if you see a lot of people passing you. Remember the story of the tortoise and the hare. Going out too fast is one of the most common running mistakes. Take calm, deep breaths, and try to block out any distracting thoughts about the other runners. You'll catch them later—and at your own pace.

Don't Get Too Emotional

Stay as calm as possible for the first 5 miles of the race. Resist the urge to high-five spectators or jump up and down when you see family and friends cheering for you. Conserve your mental energy for the run.

Miles 6 to 10: Where It Can Start to Get Tough

Your mental toughness will really start to be tested mid-race, during which you'll be running at tempo pace. Though, if you are running a smart race, it might not be until miles 9 and 10 that you really start to "feel it."

Don't give into periods of self-doubt and discomfort. Remember all those miles you ran and the training you did. Have faith in your training. Think about how hard you have worked and how rewarding it will be to complete your half marathon.

Prepare yourself with tips for staying mentally strong, and keep them in your back pocket.

Break It Up

At mile 6, start breaking up the remainder of the race into smaller segments. It will make the distance feel more manageable. For example, think, "I'm more than a third of the way done!" By mile 10, you can think: "There's only a short 5K run left to go."

Beat Boredom

Now is the time to use all those boredom-battling tricks you learned during your long runs in training. Do whatever it takes to keep your mind occupied. Find strategies to beat the boredom that work well for you.

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Count your breaths or footfalls. Counting can be like a meditation. It helps take your mind off any discomfort you feel in your body or mental games you are playing in your head as you run. Start by counting your breaths. Work to coordinate your breathing with your steps. Breathe in for four counts, then breathe out for four counts. Try to maintain this rhythm as your run progresses—especially as you begin to tire. It will help you maintain your running pace with a clear mind.
  • Do mental math. Get your mind off any discomfort you might be feeling by calculating the square footage of your living room, doing long division in your head, or reciting multiplication tables.
  • Focus on your technique. Practice proper form by going through a mental checklist of technique corrections, such as: making very little noise as you run; relaxing your hands by imagining you are holding eggshells that you can't break as you run; imagining your head is being held up by a balloon to keep you running tall; keep your shoulders down and relaxed; easing tension in your face so that it doesn't irradiate down to your neck, shoulders, and arms.
  • Meditate. Empty your mind by concentrating on the sound of your breathing or footfalls. Don't let your focus shift to other runners or the scenery, don't stop to check your watch, don't concentrate on that sore spot on your toe– just let yourself be carried by the rhythmic sound. Consistently practicing meditation during your runs prior to your race will allow you to get better at it and you will find it easier to clear your mind of extraneous thoughts.
  • Practice mindfulness. Before the start of the race, set an intention for what you wish to gain by running the half marathon. Once you reach mile 6, bring your mind back to your intention and acknowledge how you are honoring that intention. Go through each area of the body and feel your own strength and power by focussing on the muscles that you are working as you run.
  • Sing. Use the sound of your feet hitting the ground as a backbeat and run through some of your favorite songs while you run.
  • Talk to other runners. At this point in the race, you can shout out positive greetings or cheer on your fellow runners (it doesn't matter if the other runners don't talk back!).

Don't forget to take a moment to pat yourself on the back. Spend some time acknowledging your accomplishments. Staying positive will only benefit you!

Miles 11 to 13.1: Get Outside Your Body

You will likely start to feel more physical discomfort during the run's final miles. At the very least, you'll be tired. Your legs will feel heavy, your muscles might be cramping, and you will feel your lungs burning.

If you didn't pace yourself at the start of the race, these miles might feel especially rough. Try not to beat yourself up. Instead, shift your focus out of your body.

Let your mind refocus externally. Look and listen to the people cheering, read the spectator signs, make note of the other runners, and take in the scenery.

Talk to Yourself

Now is the time in the race to pass other runners. You need to dig down deep for extra strength to run the final 5k at your race pace. Use the running mantras that you curated on your training runs. Remember how you've worked through fatigue during training (and that you can do it again).

Remind yourself of your intentions, what you've sacrificed to get to this point, and how you're going to feel when you cross the finish line.

Set Small Milestones

Focus on one runner ahead of you. Power through and pass that runner. Once you have passed that person, set your sights on the next runner, and repeat. 

Finish Strong

As you near the finish line, shift your brain back to the present and be fully in the moment. Depending on your running style, you might want to sprint in the last three to six minutes of the race. Pump your legs, fill your lungs up with air, and let your heartbeat pick up.

How You Interpret a Race

Try thinking of the entire race as a race against yourself and your own time. In the last half mile, shift to thinking of it as a race against other runners. For some people, this can help ease the anxiety associated with participating in a running marathon.

Take It All In

You will want to remember your achievement and the highs that you are feeling as you finish strong. Bring your mind back to focus and allow yourself to really see, hear, and feel what is going on around you as you finish the race.

Post-Race Mental Recovery

Take some time to practice post-race recovery methods. Proudly don that finisher's shirt and medal, and take stock of how you're feeling.

If you had been hoping for a better time or feel unhappy with your performance in the race in any way, take a moment to let yourself feel those emotions. You might want to take 15 minutes to walk off the race.

When you've had some time to walk off those feelings, shift your focus back to your intentions. Acknowledge the strength and power you exhibited throughout the run. Now's the time to celebrate with friends and family. Express your thoughts about how you did and what you were able to get out of the race.

Post-Marathon Blues

You may feel an immediate high after finishing a race, but there can also be a bit of a post-run slump. Feelings of exhaustion and depression are common in the week after a marathon. This can be a normal part of being a marathon runner. Make sure that you expect it and plan for it.

Feeling down after a race should pass after a week or two as long as you practice good self-care. If the feelings persist, don't hesitate to seek medical help.

If caught early, you can reverse the chemical changes in your body and brain that could have tipped you into a clinically-significant depression.

Weight Fluctuations Can Mess With Your Head

You might notice some weight gain immediately after a marathon. This is most likely from water retention as your muscles repair and rebuild. Don't panic. The weight from the water bloating will probably come off in a week or two.

Eat a nutritious, balanced diet with enough nutrients to help your body recover. Not only will this help your body recover, but it can also relieve stress and post-run anxiety. That way, you'll be ready to jump back into training for the next race.

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