Mental Training For Athletes: How To Think Your Way To Marathon Success

Mental Training For Athletes

In this week’s Tuesday article on The Smart Runner we’re taking a look at Mental Training For Athletes and the vital role mental conditioning plays in performance.

Is there merit to “thinking your way” to a top performance? Is it even possible or is this some kind of new age nonsense you need to steer clear of?

Well, if your marathon goals have been just out of reach and you’re doubting your ability to succeed, then take stock of what I’m about to share with you because it just might be what you need.


Mental Training For Athletes

Many runners, both recreational and professional, know at least conceptually, of the benefit of a positive mindset on performance. You know for example that showing up in bad form for an event won’t allow you perform to your best.

You know that if you have doubts about your ability it’s very unlikely that you’ll hit your target. In fact I’d go so far as to suggest that self doubt will destroy your chances of success every time.

Picture it;

You’ve done all the physical training, eaten well and slept well for a consistent period. You’ve followed the training plan to the end degree yet race day nerves and self doubt steal you of the performance you know you’re capable of.

So what’s the deal?

If you’ve done all the physical work and performance has changed little, it might well be that an established habit of negative thought has gathered momentum in you.

It might be so well established that you don’t even notice it. And left untended it will take you off in the opposite direction to where you want to be.

The good news is there is a solution.

Reader Bonus: Download your free copy of the “Mental Training For Athletes” Guide

The Effects Of Negativity On The Body

Before we take a look at ways to develop mental strength and positive expectation, lets take a look at the physiological effects of negativity on the body.

Negativity causes stress, and consistent stress adversely affects the body. According to the American Psychological Association our bodies can be affected in the following ways;

  • Causes tension headaches and migraines
  • Breathing becomes more difficult
  • Blood vessels to large muscles dilate
  • May cause nausea
  • Reduces the ability for the body to absorb nutrients
  • Muscles and liver produce heightened levels of glucose to the blood.

Chronic negativity and feelings of inadequacy not only affect our ability to train and perform, but they also adversely affect our long term health and well being.

Mild negativity might not cause major day to day problems, but it does build momentum in the wrong direction. The degree to which we can correct the trend will dictate better results.

The bottom line here is that you need to work on yourself, developing positive momentum towards what you want. You can’t ignore your habit of thought and expect to turn up on race day and get it right.

Positive Mental Training For Athletes

I’ve taken on a few daunting endurance challenges over the years and in preparation I’ve employed a couple of positive mental training practices that have served me well.

The truth is I use these practices not only for endurance events, but to develop myself generally on a continued basis. Once you employ what I’m going to show you (or similar) you’re likely to see an improvement in the following areas;

  • Your general mood will improve
  • You’ll be calmer – things won’t get to you so easy
  • Experience better personal relationships
  • Improved quality of self talk
  • You’ll seem to have more time
  • Training will seem easier
  • Food choice and digestion will be improved
  • You’ll notice improved expectation of yourself
  • Better results at events

Like all practices you’ll need to maintain consistency in order to experience the results I’m suggesting.

So, here we go… here’s what you need to do and how to do it…


Meditation is often a misunderstood practice. It’s not about sitting for hours chanting Om like a buddhist monk. Meditation is more about finding the quiet space to be present without distraction of 1000 things to do.

Our minds can be turbulent places with suggestions somewhere between 20k and 70k thoughts running between our ears every day.

That’s a lot of data!

If we can’t control and direct the stuff that goes on in our mind then we are essentially out of control. The day will run us rather than us running the day. I’ll thank Jim Rohn for that one 🙂

Here’s What To Do:

  1. Get up at least 30 mins earlier than you regularly do and dress in comfortable clothes
  2. Sit in an upright kitchen chair
  3. Take out your phone and set the timer to 15 mins
  4. Hit the start button, close your eyes and place your hands on your lap
  5. Focus on your breath or some other sound like the clock ticking.
  6. Whenever you notice your mind drifting off, bring it back to your point of focus

Don’t worry about losing focus the first few times, some people take years to perfect this. Just do your best to stay focused and if your mind wanders just bring it back.

Don’t criticise yourself, there’s nothing you can get wrong here. If needs be find a tutor who can coach you to a better practice.

If you don’t want to do this that’s fine. Here’s a couple other things you can do instead;

  1. Go for a walk in the park before the the world gets up. Notice the trees, the birds, the sky etc. Notice everything around you and be grateful for your experience.
  2. Make a cup of tea and go sit on your back step. Notice the sun rising, the clouds, the colour of the sky and the blackbirds singing. Think grateful thoughts for all that you have – your family, your home, your ability to run.

Now for you lads reading this, don’t get all macho on me all over the place – this stuff works! And it works because you’re allowing your mind to clear, removing the pressure of responsibility and relaxing simply for the sake of it.

Do this and I guarantee that after 30 days, or even less, you’ll see a profound difference in the quality of your thoughts, your mood and your results.


Seeing your event going exactly to plan in your mind before you get to the start line is a method of mental training for athletes many professionals use successfully.

We all use visualisation every moment in our thought processes only it’s rarely on purpose. When we purposely develop the skill and practice of visualisation it can bring powerful results.

Great Britain’s Lizzy Yarnold spoke of her winter Olympic gold medal winning performance on a TV interview, where she said the event went exactly as she had visualised it.

“It’s been my dream for as long as I can remember. Every night going to bed I’d slide down the track in practice and I’d go through it, and visualise my dream. But I wouldn’t visualise winning, I’d visualise the process”


Visualisation is not only reserved for professional athletes. I use visualisation every day to picture what I want and I have used it successfully in the past for business and sport. You can use it too.

Here’s What To Do:

  1. After your meditation sit and visualise your event going exactly according to plan.
  2. See yourself getting ready that morning, everything being ready.
  3. Imagine yourself driving to the event and image your mood as good, clam, relaxed.
  4. Picture yourself at the start smiling, the crowd of athletes, the gun going off.
  5. See every corner, imagine looking at your watch – you’re right on target.
  6. See yourself crossing the line and see the clock above the finish with the exact time you want.

Visualise every moment you can. Do it in the morning, on the bus going to work, at lunchtime, on the way home, and especially before you go to sleep.

Check out this guide from The Association For Applied Sports Psychology in the US on how you can get started imagining success in advance.


Affirmation is self talk – openly out loud, quietly in your own head and written in your journal or diary. It’s valuable to know that most people’s mental affirming is automatic, self critical and directed without real purpose.

Flipping that often automatic inner conversation on it’s head therefore can help us hugely. Marathon runners like you and me can begin changing our results by changing the nature of the conversation we have with ourselves.

Here’s What To Do;

Let’s say you want to reach a time goal for the marathon, say sub 3:30 hour. It’s all relative so the time doesn’t really matter. Here’s how you can start.

  1. Start calling yourself a sub 3:30 marathon runner – do it in the quiet of your mind and say it out loud too, especially when you’re running.
  2. Take your journal and write in it one-sentence statements of who you want to be. Do it in the present tense and keep these to about 5 so you can remember them easily.
  3. Record yourself on your iPhone congratulating you on reaching your 3:30 time goal. It might seem nuts at first but if you play it to yourself every day it can have really powerful effects. Here’s what you might say;

“Hi [your name], this is you speaking. I’m sending you a quick message to let you know that your dream has come true. I wanted to congratulate you on a powerful performance today hitting your sub 3:30 goal for the marathon. It wasn’t all plain sailing, but you did it in style none the less – well done indeed.”

You can further utilise audio by recording your 5 one-sentence positive affirmations about you to your phone, and play them to yourself a couple of times per day.

Recent research by Sonia Kang at the University of Toronto published at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, suggests writing down a self-affirmation may be more effective than just thinking it, but both methods can help.

“Anytime you have low expectations for your performance, you tend to sink down and meet those low expectations. Self-affirmation is a way to neutralize that threat.” – Sonia K. Kang, University of Toronto

Reader Bonus: Download your free copy of the Mental Training For Athletes Guide

In Conclusion – Does Mental Training For Athletes Work?

You better believe it!

I know first hand that it works, and it can work for you too if you put the above into practice.

Ever hear this phrase?;

“Somehow they managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory”

Well that’s what you do when you tell yourself you’re not good enough, or that you’re limited, or that other’s don’t think you’re good enough.

Negative thinking can be a downward spiral dragging you further into underperformance and it’s hard to get out of when it catches hold. I know how it feels, I’ve been there too.

Developing a positive mindset is not only about performance, but also about mental health. Begin with understanding that you can stop the negative momentum and turn things around.

Start talking to yourself positively even if you don’t believe what you’re saying at first. You might even feel silly, but keep it up and things will change for the better. Remember, we get to choose who we get to be, we get to rewrite the program.


Have tried any of these practices before and have you managed to keep it consistent? How does your meditation and visualisation practice effect your performance? I’d love to hear your experience, let me know in the comments below.

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