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 comes with its own mental challenges, requiring you to be ready for the head games that you might play with yourself as your body begins to tire. Below you will find tips to surmount those psychological obstacles and distractions that come with 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, so you might 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 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 thoughts about other runners.

Don't Get Too Emotional

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

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

Your mental toughness will really start to be tested during these miles, which should be run at tempo pace. If you are running a smart race, though, it may not be until miles 9 and 10 that you 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, and have faith in it. 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 as a runner and keep them in your back pocket.

Break It Up

At mile six, 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 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 and beat boredom. Use the strategy that feels right to you:

  • 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 six, 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.

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

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 didn't pace the start of your race. But if that's the case, don't beat yourself up.

Let your mind refocus externally: the people cheering, the spectator signs, the other runners, and the scenery. Now is the time in the race to pass other runners.

Talk to Yourself

At this point in the race, you need to dig down deep for extra strength in order to run the final 5k at your race pace. Use the running mantras that you curated 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 that 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. 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 those emotions 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 after your race with 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 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. Don't 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 as long as you take care not to overindulge and take in excess calories. Sticking to a balanced diet high in nutrients will actually help relieve the burden of stress and manage anxiety so you can jump back into your training for your next upcoming marathon.

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