Mental Tips for Running a Half Marathon

Get Through the Tough Miles

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 different part of the race comes with its own mental battles, requiring you to be ready for the head games that you can often play with yourself as your body begins to tire. Below you will find tips to surmount those psychological challenges that come with each mile of a half marathon.

First 5 Miles: Start out Slow

When you start your half marathon, you'll feel strong and confident, but you 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. Your body will thank you during the later miles.

Run Your Own Half Marathon

Don't be worried if you see a lot of people passing you. Remember the tortoise and the hare? They may be starting out way too fast, so you'll catch them later—at your own pace. Going out too fast is one of the most common running mistakes. Take calm, deep breaths and try to block out the thought of other runners being faster than you.

Don't Get Too Emotional

Try to stay as calm as possible for the first 5 miles. Resist the urge to high five spectators and jump up and down when you see family and friends cheering for you. You'll want to conserve your mental energy for the rest of the run.

Miles 6 to 10: Where It Starts to Get Tough

Your mental toughness will really start to be tested during these miles. Don't give into periods of self-doubt and discomfort. Remember all those miles you ran and the training you did, and have faith in it. Think about how hard you have worked and how rewarding it will be to complete your half marathon. Explore tips on staying mentally strong as a runner.

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!" At mile 10, for example, think, "There's only a short 5K run left to go."

Beat Boredom

Here's when you really get to use all those boredom-battling tricks you tried out during your long runs in training. Do whatever it takes to keep your mind occupied, and beat boredom by doing whichever of the following feels right:

  • Sing songs. Use the sound of your feet hitting the ground as a backbeat and run through some of your favorite tunes while you run.
  • 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.
  • Count your breathing or your footfalls. Counting is very much like meditation and helps take your mind off of any discomfort or mental games that your mind may be playing on you by focusing on something else. Start by counting your breaths and then work to coordinate your breathing with your steps. You can try breathing in for four counts and then breathing out for four counts. Try to maintain this rhythm as your run progresses–even as you begin to tire—to help you maintain your running pace with a clear mind.
  • Do mental math. Whether it be calculating the square footage of your living room, doing long division in your head, or running through multiplication tables, get your mind off of any discomfort that may be setting in by doing some mental math.
  • Talk to other runners. It doesn't matter if the other runners don't talk back, at this point of the race you can shout out positive greetings or cheer on your fellow runners.
  • Focus on your technique. Practice proper form by running through a mental checklist of technique corrections, such as:
    • Make very little noise as you run.
    • Relax your hands by imagining you are holding eggshells that you can't break as you run.
    • Imagine your head is being held up by a balloon to keep you running tall.
    • Keep your shoulders down and relaxed.
    • Ease tension in your face so that it doesn't irradiate down to your neck, shoulders, and arms.
  • Practice mindfulness. Before the start of the race, set an intention for what you wish to gain by running in this half marathon. Once you reach mile 6, bring your mind back to your intention and acknowledge how you are honoring that intention. Run through each area of the body and feel your own strength and power by focussing on the muscles you're working as you run. Allow yourself to take this time to also pat yourself on the back and get lost in your thoughts as you actively think about all of your accomplishments up to this point.

    Miles 11 to 13.1: Get Outside Your Body

    You will start to feel more discomfort during these miles. You'll definitely feel tired. Your legs will feel heavy, muscles may feel cramped, and you will feel your lungs burning. This is especially true if you did not pace the start of your race appropriately. If that is the case, don't immediately let your head give up the race for you by beating yourself up for going too fast at the start.

    Let your mind take over from your body and try to focus on the outside—the people cheering, the spectator signs, the other runners, the scenery. Now is the time in the race that you should try to pass other runners.

    Talk to Yourself

    At this point in the race, you need to dig down deep for extra strength. Use the running mantras that you used during your training runs. 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. Remember how you've worked through fatigue during training and how you can do it again.

    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 being present and in the moment. Depending on your running style, you may want to sprint in the last three to six minutes of the race. Now is the time to really 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, and then in the last half mile shift your mind to think of it as a race against other runners. For some, this can help ease some anxiety associated with participating in a running marathon.

    Take It All In

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

    Post-Race Mental Recovery

    Take some time to practice sound post-race recovery methods and don that finisher's shirt and medal. If you had been hoping for a better time or feel unhappy with your performance in the race in any way, take a moment or two to feel upset as you take 15 minutes to walk off the race. Then shift your focus back to your intentions and acknowledge the strength and power you exhibited throughout the run. Immediately after, celebrate with friends and family and don't be afraid to 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 unfortunately, feelings of exhaustion and depression are quite common the week after a marathon. This is a normal part of being a marathon runner, so expect it and plan for it.

    Feelings of being down should pass after a week or two with self-care after your race. If the feelings persist, do not hesitate to seek medical help. If caught early, you can reverse the chemical changes in your body and brain that could have tipped you over into clinical depression.

    Weight Fluctuations Can Mess with Your Head

    You may note some weight gain immediately after the marathon, likely from water retention as your muscles repair and rebuild. Do not panic. Eat a balanced and sensible diet with enough nutrients to help your body recover. The bloat weight will probably come off in a week or two unless you are overindulging and taking in excess calories. Sticking to a balanced diet high in nutrients will actually help relieve the burden of stress and manage anxiety so that you can jump back into your training for your next upcoming marathon.

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    Article Sources

    • Naidoo U. Nutritional strategies to ease anxiety. Harvard Health Blog. Published March 24, 2016.