The mental side of the marathon taper

This is part of a series of posts I’m doing this spring focused on marathon training. To get these “Marathon Monday” posts in your inbox, sign-up here!


People assume that when you get to the taper, your fate on race day is sealed — there’s no way to increase your chances of having a good race. But there ARE things that you can do to improve your readiness for the race.


Physical things like not training too hard, doing some final tune-up workouts, etc. are obvious. But I want to talk about what you can do on the mental side in these final weeks to make sure that you’re at your best on race day.


There are three main tactics you can take to sharpen your mental game, and I recommend using all three throughout the final 2-3 weeks before your race:


Finalize and memorize your race plan


This is the most important step to take on the mental side. Going in with a plan of just “winging it” is not going to be the best approach for something as long and hard as a marathon. Instead, you’ll need to:


1) Decide on a goal race time

2) Decide how best to pace your race

3) Memorize your split times for key markers (for example: mile 5, 10, 13.1, and 20)

4) Go over the course map to see if there are sections that will need a special approach or tactics: big hills, long straightaways, sections with lots of turns, etc.


Don’t go in with a plan of just “winging it”

You can then mentally rehearse this plan on your final long run, thinking about each section of the race, how you’re going to approach it, anything special that you need to keep in mind, etc. This is especially effective if your final run is 13 miles as each ½ mile can correlate to a mile of the race.


Use imagery to practice for your best


Using imagery (also commonly called visualization) can provide a big boost in your race-day readiness. Having taken yourself through the race several times before it starts will give you a boost to your confidence that you’re ready to execute your plan. If you’ve never used imagery, you can use the steps listed at the end of this post as a starting point.


Know your back-up plan


Even though you want to mentally practice everything going well, it’s important to have a plan in place in case you’re not having your best day. One approach that I like to recommend is having three different goals:


  • What you want to run on a perfect day
  • What you think you can run on an average day
  •  What you would be happy with if it turns out you’re having a bad day (or bad weather, etc.)


Having these goals in place ahead of time will give you something to mentally hold on to if the race turns out not to be perfect. Without taking this step before the race, if something goes wrong, you’re right back at square one — no plan at all.


The race WILL hurt — don’t kid yourself


Along these same lines, while you’re planning out your race situations, don’t kid yourself that you won’t be tired or it won’t hurt. If you do that, there is a good chance that when the race starts to hurt (and it WILL start to hurt!) you will freak out worrying something is wrong because you didn’t prepare for it. Know that it will hurt, accept it, and be ready for it — but also know that you are well trained and you’ll be ready to handle it!


Along with the proper physical approach, these mental tactics will make sure that when you step to the line, you’re ready to run your best!



Steps for a successful visualization


1) Get in a quiet and relaxing place (I often recommend this in bed right before falling asleep) and close your eyes

2) Tense and relax your muscles, starting with your feet and slowly working up the muscles of the legs to your chest, shoulders, arms, and hands. Tense each muscle group for 3-5 seconds and slowly relax

3) Begin picturing the pre-race — what you’ll be wearing, what you’ll see, what you’ll hear, how you’ll warm-up, and how you’ll feel getting in the starting corrals

4) Picture the start of the race — how you’ll feel, what you’ll be thinking / telling yourself, what your strategy is, how you’ll execute your plan in the early miles

5) Continue to follow the race course in your mind, visualizing yourself at each of the key markers you have for the race — what your split times will be, how you’ll be feeling, what your strategy is for any of the tricky parts, and how you’ll tackle each of them

6) Picture  the final 6 miles of the race — picture how difficult it will feel, visualize yourself following your race plan and how strong you’ll feel from being well-trained

7) Picture finishing the race — see the clock as you cross the finish line, think about how you’ll feel hitting your goal time, how all the hard work will have come together, picture how good the exhaustion will feel from having run your best race

8) Gradually come back to your setting and slowly open your eyes, or if you’re in bed at night, gradually let yourself fall asleep


NOTE: Don’t rush through each individual step. The more detail you can add and the more “real” you can make it feel, the more effective it will be.


About Coach Carl
Coach Carl is a USA Track & Field Level 2 endurance coach who works with runners of all ability levels to reach their goals. He has been featured in Runner’s World, Women’s Health, and Competitor and is a regular contributor to Running Times.