Marathon: How to overcome mental barriers when preparing for a marathon

Sport & performance psychologist Edgar Tham (left), sharing with ONEathlete Banjamin Quek on how to hone his mental muscle and toughness ahead of his half-marathon at SCSM 2018.
Sport & performance psychologist Edgar Tham (left), sharing with ONEathlete Banjamin Quek on how to hone his mental muscle and toughness ahead of his half-marathon at SCSM 2018.PHOTO: RUNONE

Fatigue, boredom in training, mistakes, and the lack of progress are common challenges faced by runners of all levels. These issues do not just pop up on race day, but they can also manifest in training. Research points to a few tricks that athletes can use to overcome these mental barriers.


A recent study concluded that runners who ran with sunshine, trees and flower beds felt happier. Running with nature can help improve your mood, leaving you more excited and refreshed.

To enjoy your next race to the fullest, take in the greenery of our garden city. For example, if you are running at the Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon, look out for pretty or unique flowers, plants and trees as you make your way to The Float @ Marina Bay.

Training indoors, battling the rainy season or is the weather not working in your favour? Watching a video tour of a garden or park while working out in the gym can give you a similar positivity boost.


Running with earbuds or headphones on can help you do better too. Researchers found that athletes who ran with their choice of entertainment had more positive attitudes and performance.

Having considered the benefits, some may ask: "What type of music should I listen to?" The answer lies in the tempo. Fast-paced music gets one pumped up and running faster, while slow-paced music relaxes. However, if listening to music is not allowed during your race, grooving to your personal hits during your warm-up could also help get you in the right emotional state and ready for your race.

Running on a treadmill but not a big music junkie? Streaming a show or movie can bring similar benefits.

The next time you are looking to achieve a new personal best or cover a longer distance while training, try setting up your playlist or your favourite show before you start. Caution: Be careful and remain fully alert when training on the treadmill. Safety first!


Training your mind helps train your body too. Research with world-class athletes points to mental toughness as pivotal to peak performance. Athletes who are calm, focused and confident are better prepared, and more likely, to overcome race challenges and mistakes.

To train like a champion marathoner, have your own race plan and rehearse it both physically (through training) and mentally (by going through the race over and over again in your mind).

To design your own race plan, study the race route and consider how you will run and motivate yourself during the race. How should I start? When would I pick up my pace? What are some potential challenges (e.g. uphill, fatigue) and how can I cope with them?


Anticipate the times you may "hit the wall" and prepare yourself with possible workarounds (e.g. keep your mind on your running form, adjust your breathing).


Athletes with stronger support networks tackle stress and challenge better. Research also shows that the stress-support relationship works in two ways.

One, we seek out others when stressed. Gather your own tribe - trusted people you can turn to for love and support. Share with them about the difficulties you face, and celebrate small wins too.

Two, supporting others helps lower their stress levels and yours too. Keep your stress levels healthy by lending a helping hand to support your running buddy, particularly when the going gets tough.

The next time you hit a plateau during training or need an extra boost during the race, lean on your family and friends or consult a mental toughness coach for support.

•Edgar Tham is an associate lecturer in sport psychology at the Singapore University of Social Science, Edinburgh Napier University, and University of Wollongong.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 25, 2018, with the headline 'How to overcome mental barriers'. Subscribe