When it comes to training for—then crossing the finish line at a marathon (or your first 5 or 10K)—you need your brain as much as you need your legs.
“You face a lot of fatigue mentally and physically, and it gets very, very challenging,” says Joe Taravella, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist with offices in Manhattan, Staten Island, and New Jersey. And he should know. Dr. Taravella is also a marathoner who’s set to run the ING New York City Marathon on November 3.
“You want to remember that we control our mind, it does not control us,” Taravella says. Easy to do now. Waaaay trickier when you can barely breathe at mile 20. Which is why we asked him to spill his psychologist-approved secrets to winning the mindgame that is running, and help you proudly finish your next race.
Here are his five simple strategies for making your mind work for you when your legs just want to quit:
1. Set really short-term goals. Just like you gradually increase your mileage during training, it pays to set small goals during the race. “As you go up a big hill in Central Park, focus on the next tree that’s pretty close by,” says Dr. Taravella. “When you get to it, you can think, ‘Okay, I got that one down, now what’s the next marker for me? Is it a sign? A lamppost?’ Before you know it, you’ve conquered that hill.”
2. But reorganize and be flexible with them. Every mile is not going to live up to your expectations or go exactly as planned. Be willing to change-up your goals as you go, and “try not to let your discouragement take over,” he says.
3. Counter negative thoughts with positive ones. When discouragement creeps in—and it inevitably will—take charge. “One of the greatest things we can do is be aware of negative thoughts and then tackle them one by one,” Dr. Taravella says. Hear yourself saying you’re not going to make it, then tell yourself: “It is possible. It is happening.”
4. Play games. Focus is good, but if you’re constantly thinking about what mile you’re on, and how much everything hurts, you’ll go crazy—quick. “You want to pass the time by counting backward from 100, or coming up with a word game. Whatever works for you,” he says. Music can serve as a kind of game, too, if singing along to Ke$ha distracts you.
5. Visualize yourself succeeding. “At moments when I’m getting fatigued, I’ll remember the last .2 miles before the Central Park finish line the last time I approached it and what it felt like,” Dr. Taravella says. “That gives you a rush and takes your body into a different zone. You’re exciting your mind.” And hopefully, in turn, your legs. —Lisa Elaine Held
Got any other tips for other readers running the ING New York City Marathon? Tell us in the Comments, below!