Ask the Experts: Marathon Mental Strength Q&A with Dr Victor Thompson



  • Hi Victor,

    I am preparing for my fourth London marathon and having broke 3hours at London for the first time last year am in a good place mentally to do it again and hopefully go sub 2:55.

    I have visualised a race plan (first 3miles at no quicker than 6:40 pace) and then churn out the 6:30/6:35 miles up to 20miles before "having a go" in the last 6miles. I have done tons of training at mara pace and have learnt from past marathons that the "money in the bank" (i.e. start quick and hang on) philosophy does not work for me.

    I am sure that even though I have a plan there will be times in the race when either I want to go faster or have a bad patch ....Do you have any practical tips on how to overcome these eventualities?

    Kind regards

  • Hi Victor,

    Since my last long run two weeks ago, the taper seems to feel like an anti-climax and for the first time I'm not raring to go out running. Is this common and will I be OK come race day? Whats the best things to do to get motivated during this taper period?


  • Hi Victor, I've found I have 2 problems with preparing mental strategies: 1) is that I start using them too early in the race and so get bored with them and 2) is that I always seem to make up a better one on the day ie the prepared ones I've thought will work, don't and a new one just comes to me.  What are your thoughts? Thanks
  • From DL

    Hello Victor - and thanks for taking the time to help

    Mine is a first timer's question really - having only trained to 20 miles the extra 6 loom quite large (and seem to be getting larger). Not helped by the fact that people say half the race is to 20 then it really begins. I know I need to treat the marathon with respect but that 'extra 6' is beginning to look harder and longer every time I think about it.

    I'm slightly worried that over thinking the whole thing is making me become ever more conservative in my aims. Half marathon and 20 mile races indicate I should be able to get a 4.40ish time - but in my head I'm now worrying and thinking I should aim for a 5 hour time so I don't blow everything. Any advice you can give to help me get those little voices in my head to be on my side for a change would be appreciated!


    My reply:

    Dear DL

    So the last 6 miles is like another 20, eh? What if it is like 50, 40, 30, 10, 6, 3, 2 or 1? If you predict that it will be massive, a nightmare, then it is likely that it will be. What about double marathon runners or ultra runners, how do they experience miles 20 to 26, 45 to 50, or 56 to 62? Yes, you will be more tired towards the end as your body has done more work by then. But, is the fatigue due to expectation, not enough carbs (a caffeinated gel at mile 18 anyone?) or poor pacing?

    RE Times: Consider your training, your form and ability. Many people go off to hard and blow their race by the time 30 minutes is over, but some also are too conservative and wonder at the finish if they should have pushed themselves a bit more. Pick a good pace for you, review it every 5 miles or more often, keep on top of energy levels and enjoy the challenge.


  • Hi Victor
    Sorry it's a similar question to Gladrags. I've had 2 marathon experiences that haven't turned out how I had hoped. The wheels seem to fall off by mile 23 and I end up having to walk/run the last 3 miles. But now I'm so worried that I focus on that, and it's almost a self fulfilling prophecy now. How can I have a more positive attitude to the last 6 miles and make sure I get through that final hump when things start to get tough?
    Thank you
  • Hi Victor,

    My question's about pre-race nerves. I'm running my first marathon in Manchester in a few weeks, I suffer from anxiety and am worried that the crowds and anticipation could cause me to panic. Do you have any advice for keeping calm beforehand so I'm in a good state of mind to run?

  • From JoeSam:

    Hi Victor,

    Just interested to know, when we cross the finishing line and collected our bits and pieces, how should we start our recovery process e.g. what to eat and drink and how often and what to avoid? and what stretching exercises should we do after and later on?  I'm just thinking of my journey home on the train on monday!

    Many thanks in advance


    While I’m not a coach or nutritionist, my experience as a triathlete (with some pure run races too) gives these guides:

    Move! Walk a bit afterwards to stop the body seizing.

    Good: Water

    Better: energy drink (if you can stomach it)

    Best: flavoured milk or some drink with protein

    These fluids within 20 mins, not excessive quantities, 500ml is good.

    Then stretch or get massage rub down.

    Solid food later. Small to Moderate portions, grazing quite often.

    Alcohol isn’t good, but may be desired!


  • BadbarkBadbark ✭✭✭
    Hi Victor, can you recommend any ‘mind tricks’ that you can do over the last few miles when you are really pushing it to the max. For example I’ve read that Paula Radcliffe repeatedly counts to 100 to take her mind off the pain.
  • From Daisydoodoo

    Hi Victor
    Sorry it's a similar question to Gladrags. I've had 2 marathon experiences that haven't turned out how I had hoped. The wheels seem to fall off by mile 23 and I end up having to walk/run the last 3 miles. But now I'm so worried that I focus on that, and it's almost a self fulfilling prophecy now. How can I have a more positive attitude to the last 6 miles and make sure I get through that final hump when things start to get tough?
    Thank you

    My reply:

    What do you eat (gels, banana, jelly babies?) and drink during the marathon

    What if you viewed the race as 30 miles, with the finish sprung on you anytime from miles 25 onwards? Might that change your bogey last 3 miles?

    What if with 3 miles to go you were joined by an imaginary friend who was really encouraging? Or an archrival? Or someone who told you that you couldn’t do it? Would any of those ‘events’ help you?


  • DLDL ✭✭✭
    Thanks Victor - much appreciated
  • Thanks so much Victor for your invaluable advice, and thanks for all your brilliant questions - I'm afraid that's all we've got time for now though!

  • Rower2Runner

    Hi Victor

    I am entered at VLM (my 4th marathon in 12months) and i have had a horrendous run up with injuries and flu and now I am suffering from overtraining syndrome. I am finding it difficult to decide whether to do the race as I am very competitive and had it in my mind to go for a PB (sub 3:15) but now it is an impossible ask so wondered whether you would advise me to sit out of this one or to do the race and if so what to do in order to get rid of my angst of underperforming.

    Many thanks


    If you are overtrained, you are very  unlikely to get a new PB. Will that be totally dissatisfying?

    Can you do it just to enjoy it? No?

    Then, my advice would be to walk away, review what led to the overtraining situation, and ensure that you return wise and fresh for another marathon challenge.


  • Interesting....I would like to do an ultra one day. Maybe I'll give that idea a go next week. I have asked a friend to shout abuse if they see me walking....but I won't get to that point, will I!

    Thank you for your advise, next week, I will break the cycle.
  • From @KeyserSuze

    Hi Victor,

    Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions!

    Mine is a fairly common issue: can you tell me why, after 14 weeks of good training where I've run farther and faster than ever before, 9 days before my first marathon I'm struggling to run 5 miles in less than 10 minute miles?

    I think I know the answer, and that is that my nerves are getting in the way. The trouble is, every bad run I have makes it worse!

    Do you have any tips or specific things to do to get myself out of this dip and ready for Sunday, April 22nd?

    Thank you.

    My reply:

    And thanks to you and all others for the questions – I’ve almost kept up the required pace to answer them!

    Who hasn’t had a bad run, week, or felt phantom injuries in the lead up to an event. Or, put another way, who’s had a great lead-up without any doubts? Anyone? That’s right, NO ONE.

    Maybe you are tired? Maybe you are putting too much into the ‘I need to do this distance at this pace while feeling fantastic’ type of training right now.

    The result will be known on Sunday afternoon, not before. So do your last 9 days of training pretty well, then have a good plan which you FOLLOW on Sunday, rise to the challenges, and congratulate yourself for giving it a go. Remember, thousands run it, but millions sit watching it on the sofa. You are risking it, testing yourself, you are one of the brave ones. Well done. You have done so much already!



  • Thanks Victor - I know it sounds obvious but it's nice to know that everyone feels a bit tired or demotivated sometimes!

    Despite this I am looking forward to the run, and following in thousands of people's footsteps in one of the best marathons in the world.
  • Sorry guys, I have to go now. Thanks for all your questions. Best of luck to all of you, but don't leave it to chance:

    Plan your race weekend,

    Talk (internally) nice and helpfully to yourself

    And, well done on going out there and testing yourself

    You can check out my other tips on the Runners World site or on my website



  • Disappointed that my post appears to have been missed image
  • Sensational advice in this thread - useful for me so thanks all !
  • Q. Can you recommend any mental strategies to help deal with the taper/on the day? Emmy_bugMy reply:Emmy_bugYour taper should inspire confidence, not anxiety.You have done the training, followed a plan and backed-off (tapered) in the lead up to the event. You are more rested, fresh, recovered and ready for the long run (marathon). As the excitement builds you notice plenty of nervous energy, and rediscovered bounciness. Remind yourself of how prepared you are, how ready you will be due to the taper, knowing you can now give it your best, as you are no longer fatigued from all the mileage you have been doing. Bring it on!

    Plus, on race day, know that you are well prepared because of the training you have done. Know that your prep has been good, not perfect, but no has a prefect prep, you don’t need one. Just a good enough prep. Think about how you plan to run, in terms of pacing, focus, nutrition. Notice how the nerves feel good, they are normal, everyone has them.Enjoy the day


  • Merilin wrote:

    Q. How do you keep your motivation up during the long training runs? I'm at the toughest point now in preparation for the Edinburgh Marathon and some days it's tough with full time job, college and family life. I want to train but my brain keeps telling me I'm tired. How do I get out and keep going? MerilinMy reply:MerilinYou will be tired from all the running, plus with other aspects of life to fit in (a job…) you’ll feel knackered in the heaving training period of marathon prep.But, your mind will trick you into thinking that you are too tired to train. That it is best to take it easy and put your feet-up. However, there are 2 problems with this:1. You can nearly always complete your session once you start2. If you take it easy and put your feet up you will no doubt experience guilt and regretInstead, remind yourself of why you are doing this marathon, of why you chose to do it, of how it will be good to do it, how the training will help, how enduring the tired days will be helpful, how it can build mental strength etc. Perhaps you’ll want to think of those people who doubt you, who think you are soft or who may be wanting to beat you on the day. Use what worked for you in the past, and it will likely help you right now to dig-deep and get out there to do the sessions.Other tips include putting your running shoes and kit right where you’ll see them, so you have to really avoid them if you aren’t going go out on your run. Or, meet-up with others for part of all of the run. Even if this involves a friend cycling as you run, for the company, chat and commitment to get out there at a certain time.The exception to this advice is that if you really are developing an overtraining problem (chronic under-recovery and risking long-term problems) then backing-off is sensible.Victor
  • Ivy Mike wrote:

    Q. What’s the best way to get over a bad marathon? I ran VLM last year and I had an awful race, finishing almost an hour below my target time, despite training well. It took me months before I could apply myself to run more than a mile at a time.

    I wasn't really injured afterwards, I just felt like there was a mental barrier to overcome because of the negative experience I had of the race. How can I prevent significant post-marathon fallouts happening again?My reply:Ivy MikeThe marathon is so important to those of us who enter it. We’ve put a lot of effort into the training. A lot of thought into it. Made sacrifices with our time. So, if it goes poorly (according to our own judgement) then it can be gutting. Post marathon blues are common. Not everyone crosses the line ecstatic, proud or even satisfied.To reduce the likelihood that this will reoccur I suggest that you set the three levels of goals that I encourage everyone I work with (elite or amateur) to set. These are:Dream: if everything goes absolutely brilliantly what can I achieve (still based on the real world though)Realistic: If I experience a few challenges, but deal with them well and have a pretty good day, what can I achieveAcceptable: If I have a nightmare of a day and it is a real struggle, perhaps my legs just aren’t working very well, an injury develops or something else happens, I want to do the best for me. This may include stopping, slowing, walking, toughing it out or whatever. No matter what, I will accept myself and my decisions no matter how bad it gets, whether I finish or not.Commit to these three levels of goals, so you can go for it and do really well and be happy, but if it goes wrong, you will find it easier to walk away with your head held high, ready to face the next running challenge sooner, rather than later.


  • Tempo Tom wrote:Ivy Mike - I'm in the same position as you, I sprained my ankle six weeks ago. It was devastating but I chose to pull out this year and defer my place. It's not ideal, but I tried to turn it into a positive and thought about all the training I can do over the rest of the year to improve my fitness come the race next year. Tempo Tom

    My reply:Temp TomIt sounds like you are managing well. No matter how well we try to train and look after ourselves sometimes injuries just seem to happen. Once injured your position changes and it is time to review your plan and training/exercise. The focus shifts from upping the training plan to sorting out the injury, becoming more robust and if possible cleverer in your training. By doing this you will come back to compete another day, hopefully better than before. Plus your training and competitions will seem all the sweeter after a forced off period. Victor
  • Tmap wrote:Q. Similar to the above, I'd be interested in your thoughts specifically on calming nerves and getting more sleep. I don't get this much now but I certainly used to and I imagine it's a common problem. At what point should one take medication? Tmap

    Poor sleep the night before the marathon is common, normal.Evidence from elite sport, with Olympic medal winners, shows that sleep the night before (and 2 nights before) has no measurable impact on their performance. So, for us non-elites, it’s hardly likely to have an impact either.The day and night before should be restful. Take it easy. Follow a normal type of day, just a bit easier than you are used to. At night, follow a similar routine. If you go to bed normally at 11pm, don’t expect to go to bed at 9pm and drop-off to sleep. Got to bed at a similar to usual time. Consider sleep a bonus, with rest being important. If you can’t sleep, don’t fight it, or it will be more difficult to come by. Let your mind wander onto boring or somewhat interesting topics unrelated to the marathon. If you are tossing and turning in bed, unable to sleep, consider getting up and having a hot (non-caffeinated) drink and reading a book or mag.Victor
  • Ed_Zep wrote:Q. Do you have any effective visualisation techniques you can suggest? Ed_Zep

    My reply:Ed_ZepVisualisation, or imagery, is helpful as it helps you to rehearse how the marathon will go and how you will deal with certain challenges. Imagine running the race following your race plan. Imagine getting through the tough periods, doing what will help you. Imagine how good it will be to finish, how you will be proud, how you will have done yourself justice however the event unfolds.Victor
  • Nicole Martin 3 wrote:Q. I completed my second marathon in September. I was really looking forward to it and I achieved a PB but not quite my set target. I loved it anyway as it was in my home town Berlin. Unfortunately, ever since then I have hit a massive wall. I’ve picking up every virus going around and due to my poor health, my fitness level is at its worst. How can I pick myself up and regain confidence? I’m not entirely sure where or when but I have completely lost my mojo. Nicole Martin 3My reply:Nicole1.      Ensure that you are recovered, or at least able to do some training (you don’t want to risk a relapse)2.      Accept that you are now at a different level to your PB at Berlin days, so you need to adjust your sights and expectations lower too.3.      Consider changing your focus from times, pacing, distance to running experience for a few weeks at least. Run when you want, as long as you want, as fast as you want, simply trying to get back to fitness, enjoying it, without taking too much out of yourself physically.4.      After at least a month or two, consider if a more structure approach to training is due, or delay this for another while.Victor
  • Thanks again for all your questions. I wanted to return to the forum to answer the ones that you had submitted, but that I hadn't managed to get to on Friday.

    For all of you doing the VLM - have a great one. Enjoy it (yes, really). Do yourself proud. It's important, but after all, it is still only a run (plus maybe some walking). So try to keep the event in prespective, so you have a greater chance of doing well, having a good day, and walking away with your head held high.


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