Build Mental Toughness by Going Long and Straight

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Photo Credit: Fog by Flickr user 1banaan, used under a Creative Commons license.

While the physical training for a marathon is important, what often goes neglected is preparing mentally for some of the rough spots of the race.  No matter how well trained you may be, moments of doubt or even panic are bound to slip in as you begin to fatigue and realize how far you have yet to go.  Therefore, it’s important to consider some specific steps to prepare for the situations you may face come race day.

One such example is the long, seemingly endless, straightaway, especially those that are sparsely populated with fans.  Such features are common in several marathons, especially smaller ones, but even the majors like Boston (though crowd support is usually pretty good) and Chicago (think of the stretch from the southernmost point beyond mile 23 until you hit McCormick) have their challenges.

The difficulty inherent in facing such a stretch hit home for me just before my Cleveland Marathon in 2010, after reading about Boston Road Runner (Robyn Lewis) experiencing such a challenge at the Providence Marathon.  It occurred to me that, to that point, I’d been avoiding long straight stretches, maybe out of a fear of getting too far from home and having to bail, or maybe just to have a lot of mini-milestones to hit each time. I would hit every cul-de-sac in sight, and pride myself on going 20 miles within a five-mile radius of my home. With the Cleveland Marathon having two long straightaways in the last half of the race at that time (along the lake, then back into town), I had a moment of mini-panic.

Maybe many of you have this same tendency.  Do you try to stay close to home so that you can bail (or maybe refill your fluids) if things get rough?  This could exhibit a lack of confidence that can come back and bite you in a race situation, when bailing really shouldn’t be an option.  Do you talk yourself through a longer run with “just make it to the next corner”?  Do you like running in familiar environs, so you don’t have to think about how to deal with unfamiliarity, or you find it easy to compare outings from one time to the next?  You’re not going to have that luxury in a race.

Just like we try to get race-specific in our physical preparations, so that our body is prepared for the challenges it will face, we need to get race-specific in our mental readiness too.  If we never encounter the long straightaway, we can’t know how we will react to it come race day.  We may not have the familiar distractions that take our mind away from the tricks it will tend to play, and slip into feelings of inadequacy or experience a loss of confidence.  We may be uncomfortable with unfamiliar surroundings and not able to predict the “next milestone” that will reset our internal timer.

So what are some ways to prepare for the long and straight intimidator?  The obvious choice is to run plenty of long and straight sections in your training, especially at the end of a long run, when you find yourself counting down the miles until you are finished. If you have the option, add such a stretch to your route, preferably one with as few crossroads or other milestones as possible.  I now have at least two different 3+ mile stretches of a single road with two or less cross-streets that have become regular finishing sections for my 16+ mile long runs.

Another way to boost confidence is to get far away from home and know that you have no choice but to run your way back.  Run a big loop or a long out-and-back, and get out of your comfort zone (but within your physical capabilities, of course).  If you face a choice in a route early on, turn away from home – I did this on a long run last week and while I wasn’t happy with the huge hill I then had to run (and the effect on my overall pace), I was glad I chose to challenge myself.

And you can even integrate this into your interval workouts – nothing makes you feel exposed, vulnerable, and potentially bored like long intervals on the track, especially with no one else around.  You are only accountable to yourself, and the track doesn’t lie.  If you can execute mile repeats on the track, you can probably handle long stretches of running fast on the road.

Knowing and preparing for the mental hurdles you will face on race day can make the difference between a great training season and a great race.  Study your course, anticipate the challenges, and create situations where you rehearse for those challenges. Come race day, you’ll find yourself facing them with confidence and letting your body do the talking.

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  • Rachel

    As someone who regularly runs long out and back routes for her long runs, and does all intervals on a local track, I can certainly attest to the amount of mental toughness these routes can build. I don’t like running on the treadmill much, but I usually try to do a handful of 10-12 milers on there for the same reason. I think the mental strength is much harder to build than the physical strength, but it’s a big piece in the marathon puzzle!

  • Brian Harris

    This is such great advice. I have a tendency to opt for training routes that are packed with turns, and part of the reason is that I don’t like the endless straight-away. But one of the lowest points, mentally, of the marathon I ran in December was as I was approaching a lake that the race course encircled. It was 10 miles around the lake, and from that vantage point I could see runners ahead of me almost all the way around the lake. It was one of those “OMG look how far” moments that I wish I had been better prepared for. Your post is a good reminder for me to look for routes that help me prepare mentally for those moments.

  • Jason

    I did a 22 miler before Philly that was11 miles out and back. Totally straight on the C&O Canal towpath. A bit Boeing but it let’s you get into the groove and focus 100% on the workout. Good advice Greg!

  • Greg Strosaker

    Thanks Rachel, the treadmill is a good suggestion (unless one finds watching TV on it to be a good distraction). Sounds like you have a good strategy for keeping yourself mentally engaged in your running.

  • Greg Strosaker

    Thanks Brian, sounds like you had the same type of “a-ha” moment that I did – sorry it came in a race, but it sounds like you know what you need to do going forward.

  • Greg Strosaker

    Thanks Jason, the Towpath Marathon itself is largely a double out-and-back (south first and back, then north and back), and it obviously makes good training to run on the Towpath itself. But I actually find that the scenery is so good that you can get lost in thought, and it doesn’t necessarily prepare me for a long stretch of straight road. But it is intimidating to be hurting and know that you have no choice but running the 11 miles back.

  • Malcolm McLoughlin

    Sound advice Greg, I remember training for a 12hr race around a 1.4km loop and it was all in my head. Having put in hours on the track going round in circles it prepared me for the day so much. The mind needs to be just as strong as the body.

  • Greg Strosaker

    Sounds like you did a great job getting race-specific in your approach for that one by hitting the track – smart training Malcolm, and I had forgotten about those types of events.

  • Jeff Gaudette

    Really creative and innovative approach, Greg. I profess to making things easier on myself in workouts by running familiar courses where I know every little hill and tough spot. This definitely makes me less adaptable in races. Love the out of the box thinking!

  • Greg Strosaker

    Thanks Jeff, I did a 13 miler this morning that was basically two long straight stretches and have really come to enjoy that approach, I guess I’m lucky to live in an area where many such routes are possible. I also find that by varying my routes almost constantly, I forget about tough hills until I’m nearly upon them (especially since I run in the dark), so I find myself much more comfortable with the sudden challenge.

  • Mindi Giftos

    Great idea. I sometimes run on a rails-to-trail trail near my house for my really long runs and it IS hard. I never thought about it as mental toughness training, but I can definitely see why you do. Thanks.

  • Greg Strosaker

    Thanks Mindi, here near Cleveland the Towpath trail provides a similar experience – once you do the “out”, you have no choice but to do the “back”, and most stretches are pretty long and straight (though scenic). I used to find that a tough way to do marathons, though my opinion of the Towpath changed last fall.

  • CinnaOne

    Great post, Greg! I have such a hard time with straighaways – I call them “death marches,” but much like hill training I think there’s a lot to be gained by confronting inhibitions instead of avoiding them.

  • Greg Strosaker

    Thanks Cinnamon, I think your idea of using training to “confront inhibitions” is appropriate – much better to gain confidence in overcoming our barriers when it doesn’t count than it is to try and do so when everything is on the line.

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