How to Mentally Break Down a Marathon

Run

, by Nick Bester

Photography by: Jose HERNANDEZ Camera 51

The way you mentally approach a marathon is almost as important as your physical preparation. How you break down the distance will not only have a significant impact on your time but also on your experience on the day. In this article, run coach Nick Bester explains how he breaks down the marathon distance.

I’ve recently completed my 80th marathon, at London 2024. After I finished my first marathon eleven years ago, I promised myself that I would never do one again. Ha ha - oh when that bug bites, it bites hard.

During my marathon ‘journey’, I’ve changed the way that I break the distance down. I might change it again in the future, but here is the mindset I currently adopt on race day.

RELATED: How to Train for a Marathon

Start to halfway

Switching the brain ‘off’ for this first half of the race is important. It's sometimes easier said than done, but you must conserve as much energy as possible during the first half of the race. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying that the marathon only starts in the second half - and even more so in the last 10k. That is true. We want to try and get to the halfway point as fresh as possible. Have a plan in your head before the start. Soak up the crowds and enjoy the beginning but, ultimately, try to trick your brain and pretend that the race only begins at the halfway point.

I’m sure you’ve heard the saying that the marathon only starts in the second half - and even more so in the last 10k. That is true.

Concentration and focus (Miles 13.1 - 17.5 / Kilometers 21 - 28)

This is a critical part of the marathon as it sets the tone for the second half of the race. Push too hard and you could jeopardize yourself in those crucial last few kilometers. Hold too much back and you might find that you’ve left some time out on the course.

RELATED: Five Ways to Improve Your Marathon Time

Focus, concentrate, and ensure you’re getting the key fueling in for what’s to come.

Work through a mile or kilometer at a time. Before you know it, you’re at 17 miles / 28 km, two-thirds of the race is complete and you only have one-third to go. Let’s get into the next phase.

Photography by: David Acosta Allely

Grit your teeth, block out those demons, and be stubborn (Miles 17 - 21 / Kilometers 28 – 35)

This is often a part of the marathon where your pace starts to slip.

MORE FROM COACH NICK: How It Feels to Run 4 Marathons in 4 Weeks

Remind yourself why you’re doing this. Think about the big sessions you did in training; those high mileage weeks; those tough workouts. They were for these moments in the race, right here. Mentally, I often find this section the toughest. You’re fatigued, you’ve worked very hard, but you can’t quite smell the finish line just yet. If you’re feeling strong at this point, you need to look forward and not hold back. Gradually start increasing your pace but don’t do anything too drastic. Often, I find that overtaking other runners or being on track for a PB gives you some much-needed motivation during this part of the race.

Think about the big sessions you did in training; those high mileage weeks; those tough workouts. They were for these moments in the race, right here.

If, however, you find yourself being overtaken by other runners and have missed your target time, this can cause a drop in your morale. Don’t give up. You mustn’t empty the tank in this phase as you still have seven 4 miles / 7 km to go. Just know that it’s getting tough and that’s okay as this is what we mentally prepare for - these moments right here. One foot in front of the other. Even if it doesn’t flow as easily as in the beginning, just get to that 21 mile / 35 km mark.

RELATED: How to Peak for Your Target Race

Just a parkrun left (Miles 21 - 25 / Kilometers 35 – 40).

Think about how quickly a parkrun can go by. That’s all we’ve got left and then we’re pretty much there. Try and get in the last bit of fuel at the start of this section - you’ll need it, especially if the body is beginning to feel weak. Use the crowds on the course to lift you. Let the songs you hear take away the pain of running. Your body can handle it, you know it can. But the demons inside your head are telling you to slow down or stop. Be stubborn enough to tell them to be quiet and keep focusing on the road ahead.

You’ll probably go through numerous phases during the race. Ride the wave. When times are good roll with it and when times aren’t, try and change your thought process. The main thing at any stage of the race is to hold your form and, hopefully, your time splits will hold too.

The penultimate kilometer (Miles 24.8 - 25.5 / Kilometers 40 – 41.2)

Just over a half mile/kilometer to go before we can start seeing the end. This is the time for that pre-race song that you’ve chosen to come out. Demons are popping up every 10 seconds but we are not allowing them to infiltrate our brain. No way. Just keep pushing through as you’ve nearly made it!

RELATED: How Runners Can Get The Best Out of Strava

The last kilometre never counts (Miles 25.5 - 26.2 / Kilometers 41.2 – 42.2)

You can always find something in that last half mile/kilometer. Let thoughts of crossing the finish line give you that adrenaline rush you need to get through this last bit. Whatever you put in from here, you’ll thank yourself for after. Don’t worry about what has been or what’s coming next - the sole focus here is to get the body across the line as fast as possible. With 400m to go, allow yourself to take in those finish-line feels. Give the crowd some love - you’ve made it, and that puts you at less than 1% of the people on this planet.

With 400m to go, allow yourself to take in those finish-line feels. Give the crowd some love - you’ve made it, and that puts you at less than 1% of the people on this planet.

It’s all over. You made it! Even though a part of you started doubting it at certain sections.

If you hit your goal time, there’s no better feeling! If you haven’t, take the moment to yourself, give yourself some credit, and use this as motivation to work harder than ever before.

RELATED: Training Motivation: How to Keep Your Levels High

I know we all have different ways in which we break marathons down. This is how I do it. Hopefully, you find it can work for you too.

Onwards and upwards,

Coach Nick