Every marathon comes with its own set of challenges, whether it’s a hilly course, lots of turns, unrelenting wind or hot weather. Sometimes it’s the sheer distance itself that can trip people up — even on the flattest of routes. If you’ve ever come across a time mid-race or mid-long run when you feel like you just need to walk, know that you’re not alone. No matter how well you train, your legs will eventually feel tired and your brain might get a little bored. (Even pro marathoners say they reach this point!)
Persevering through the hard hills and long stretches, though, will make you feel even more proud in the end. And the key to staying motivated and making it to the finish is a positive mindset. To help you keep a clear head, we gathered advice from men and women who have successfully steered the 26.2-mile course. From elite runners to amateur marathoners, here are their best tips for keeping going when the going gets tough.
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9 Marathoner Tips for Making It Through a Tough Race
1. Stay in the moment.
“I had a sports psychologist named Craig Manning tell me, ‘anxiety lives in the future and regret in the past, but none of those emotions exist in the present.’ When things get tough, I try to get myself into the present and break the race up into manageable chunks. In the Olympics at 16 miles, I wasn’t sure I was going to make it. I didn’t feel great, and it was hot and humid. However, I knew I could make it two more miles to my next GLUKOS bottle, so I worked on that. Throughout the rest of the race, I thought in small steps. Nerves hit when I am worried about what might or might not happen. When I’m in the present, focusing only on the relevant, I don’t worry about the pain or fear the future.”
— Jared Ward, sixth place finisher in the 2016 Olympic Marathon
2. Think of it as character development.
“When the crux of a marathon rears its face, I use it as a moment to define myself. Because whether we are using running to be faster or healthier or to strengthen our resolve, when the going gets tough, it’s our chance to define ourselves. So I like to put a little pressure on myself in the race. I tell myself that the outcome is greater than simply a PR or a podium finish. Depending on the choices I make in a race — to give up or dig down — I am creating a habit when things get stressful or hectic in everyday life. Running is a safe place to express being graceful, bold, strong, courageous, tough and resilient. Once you are challenged in life, you can more habitually react with those traits.”
— Deena Kastor, American record holder in the marathon; won the bronze in the 2004 Olympic Marathon
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3. Practice positive self-talk.
“Think confident thoughts and repeat mantras to yourself, like ‘I am fast, this feels good’ or ‘I am strong, I’m running great.’ Don’t use mantras with negative words like ‘fight the pain.’ Also, try and catch people in front of you. Pick one person and focus solely on reeling them in, nothing else. As you pass them, surge and put your eyes on the next person and repeat. Imagine tying a fishing line to their back and reeling them in.”
— Jeff Gaudette, owner and head coach of RunnersConnect in Boston
4. Dedicate your miles to family.
“The thing I think most about when a marathon get tough is my family, mostly my kids. I think about how they love and support me in this and that I’m not just doing it for myself, but for all of them. When the hills get difficult and the temperature gets warmer, I know I can’t give up. I push even harder, so that I can see them all at the finish line sooner.”
— Ashley Degen, 38-time marathoner based in Kansas City, KS
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5. Remember why you’re running.
“When I go to the dark side in a marathon, I reconnect with my purpose and why I originally set out to run the 26.2-mile race. We are all running for a reason, whether it’s to challenge ourselves, beat the competition, honor a loved one or inspire others. The purpose behind the marathon endeavor is often full of emotional charge, and I recall it when it gets hard. It fuels me to stay focused and use the power of will. It reminds me that it’s not OK to take the easy way out. It drives me into my zone where I feel most alive. Purpose is powerful.”
— Michael Meliniotis, a regional class runner and coach at Mile High Run Club in NYC
6. Let go of the stress.
“There is inevitably pain, of course, and what makes it worse is fear — the fear of not being able to go forward, the fear of embarrassment when you show up a day late to the line, or just the fear of really damaging yourself. The truth is most of the issues can be corrected by a slight change in form, or simply slowing down so you can run with your best form. Hitting ‘the wall’ is mostly in our head. If you can focus your mind on what’s positive about that moment, and think of a strategy instead of a tragedy, you can work your way into the next wind. Oh, also, remember you’re out there for the fun of it!”
— Danny Fisher, two-time marathoner based in NYC
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7. Acknowledge that you put in the work.
“I tell myself, ‘this pain and these miles are temporary, and if you keep going and truly do your best that feeling will be with you forever…just as the feeling of being so pissed off at yourself will be with you forever if you stop!’ I think about all those early mornings I got up to run while everyone was asleep, the party nights when I drank water so I could get up for a long run, and the family time I missed during training. That keeps me motivated to do my very best. It all comes down to one race and one day — leave it all out on the course!”
— Liz Krull, 12-time marathoner based in Overland Park, KS
8. Realize you’re lapping people on the couch.
“The first thing I always tell people is that almost everyone I know goes through this lull at least one time during their race. So never think it’s because you haven’t trained hard enough or you’re not in shape. It’s a normal, and in my opinion, positive feeling, which when overcome, is a real accomplishment. When this does happen to me, I think to myself, ‘I can do anything for the amount of time I have left.’ I also think about how 99 percent of the population is lying in bed and not doing what I’m doing, which is something to be proud of. Lastly, I think, ‘I can always slow down my pace a little and get back in the groove.’”
— Stevie Kremer, elite long-distance trail runner based in Crested Butte, CO
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9. Focus on form and stay strong.
“My mantra is typically, ‘form, form, form.’ When a runner gets tired, their form breaks down and gets less efficient. By saying and focusing on form, I remind myself to run more efficiently and to get back on track. Even for only a few seconds, I am running better — sometimes this is enough to get you through a rough patch or tough hill on the course. It also will distract you from how bad you might be feeling. I sometimes get mad at how I might be feeling or how my body is starting to fail me. Giving yourself some tough love does help you keep moving. It is important to stay positive. Focus on the all the work you did and not what you might have missed.”
— John Honerkamp, senior manager at the New York Road Runners and coordinator of the TCS New York City Marathon online training program
10. Recall what you overcame in training.
“When I’m training, I feel like I’m often actually in more pain than the race, because in training, you don’t have the crowd and everyone around you. So I try to remind myself when I’m running a race of what I fought through already in training, and that it’s prepared me for whatever I’m going to face in the race. And that it’s actually going to be easier, because I have the crowd pushing me and all the adrenaline. One quote I like to tell myself is, ‘In the joy of going all-out, I forgot my pain.’ That’s from Roger Bannister…enjoy challenging yourself and going for it and you kind of forget about the pain as soon as it’s over.”
— Sara Hall, pro track athlete, three-time marathoner, co-founder of the Hall Steps Foundation