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Joan Samuelson Offers Tips For Training Your Brain For Race Day

Joan Benoit Samuelson and Abbott's medical director share their tried-and-true mental tips for runners.

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joan samuelson
Photo: Nike

Over time, research shows that the brain is like a muscle—and, as Khan Academy says—”It gets stronger with practice.” This is true when reading a book, learning a new recipe or even training for adn running a race.

It is easy to forget that we need to train mentally when it isn’t listed in our training plans between Thursday’s fartleks or Saturday’s long run. But just as we train our legs and lungs, it is just as important to train our brains.

Just like you have to train your muscles physically, you have to train your brain mentally,” explains Dr. Beth McQuiston, a neurologist and the Medical Director of Abbott, the sponsor of the World Marathon Majors. “You need both your muscles and your brain working together.”

As Abbott’s medical director,McQuiston sees runners in all stages of life and experience who are competing not only in the World Marathon Majors as a whole, but also in the individual races in Tokyo, London, Boston, Berlin, Chicago and New York. As a neurologist, she has found that there are many different techniques you can use to be in your best mental shape come race day. McQuiston has even worked with Olympian and marathon legend Joan Benoit Samuelson to refine some of these tips.

RELATED: What Does It Take To Run All Six Marathon Majors? 

McQuiston and Benoit Samuelson find a big part of the mental game involves changing the narrative in your head. They see it as a distraction. McQuiston recommends writing down all of the things you are telling yourself during training—”That 13-mile run was hard; how will I run a marathon?”—and reframing it into a win. You’d instead tell yourself: “I made it through that 13-mile run and I am halfway to my goal.” McQuiston says to make every challenge an opportunity or a positive and keep that mental dialogue positive and fresh.

Benoit Samuelson agrees. “You can’t control what you can’t control,” she interjects. “Like the weather. You can’t control that. That is a distraction. That is taking away from the focus of why you are doing this.” She uses last year’s Boston Marathon as an example. “Last year in Boston, we had a pretty nice spring after a very challenging winter, but come race day, it was a rainy, windy day,” she muses. “There wasn’t a darn thing I could do about that! You just have to control what you can control and run your own race, if you will.”

In addition to training your mind to focus on what you can control—your training and mental mindset—you can use rewards along the way to keep things fresh. Benoit Samuelson uses massages as her reward after a long run done at race pace. McQuiston suggests putting a dollar into a jar after every run you complete and then at the end of the race, you have a fund set aside to buy yourself a celebration gift.

RELATED: 5 Common Mistakes Made While Marathon Training

If you’re new to running or want to get a friend out on the roads with you, these mental games work for that situation, too. They aren’t just for marathoners. Start out and walk for 26 minutes and 20 seconds. The next week try to walk 2.62 miles.

“There are all sorts of mental games you can play on your own that you can play to get you psyched and in the zone to go on and accomplish greater things,” reiterates Benoit Samuelson. “This works for the marathon, the 5K, the 10K and even life. We often say marathoning is a metaphor for life—there are so many similarities.”

The final mental play Benoit Samuelson suggests: Leaving a little something in your tank. If, come race day, you haven’t run the full race distance, do not back down. “I have never run 26 miles in training. I have trained really hard and then I have something in my reserve,” she explains. “You are taking what could be a negative and making it into a positive. I think that sometimes going into uncharted territory for people—as long as they have done the essential work—can really be a benefit on race day.”

Don’t save the mental game just for race day, because in the end, it is just as important as the miles you’ve logged physically.