Mental Motivation: 5 Ways to Keep Moving

Worried about finishing the race? Try these tips from Dr. Beth McQuiston and Olympic Gold Medalist Joan Benoit Samuelson to prepare.

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When it comes to marathon training, your mind can act as your biggest ally or your worst enemy. How and what you think can significantly impact your potential for achievement.

"Having the right attitude and the right mental perspective can help cheer you on to great success," says Beth McQuiston, MD, a neurologist, registered dietitian, and Abbott medical director. "On the other hand, if you have a negative dialogue going through your mind, you can torpedo yourself. Just as important as training your body, is to train your mind as well."  

To enhance training, it helps to weave mental  components into your daily exercise routine. Tap into your mental prowess by following these expert tips by Dr. McQuiston and Olympic Marathon gold-medalist Joan Benoit Samuelson.

1. Visualize Yourself to Victory

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As the old saying goes, "Seeing is believing." The adage holds true even when the picture takes place only in your mind.

The practice of visualization is an effective tool for every runner, McQuiston said. The first step to visualization is clearing your mind and taking stock of your thoughts. Are negative words or notions floating around up there? If so, squash them. Next, imagine yourself excelling at your goal. Whether it’s running around the block or winning a top marathon prize, envision success.

"Picture yourself getting through the first mile, over the daunting hill up ahead, or crossing the finish line with a personal record," Samuelson says. “Remember to never believe your doubts; many of the limitations you may think are physical, are actually mental."

2. Get into the Right Habits

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Tough tasks are easier to follow when they become habits.

Tying training to daily triggers will make them more automatic, McQuiston says. For instance, link drinking your morning coffee with an after-coffee run or lacing up your shoes with a trip to the gym. The association will make the goals easier to accomplish and ensure your training stays foremost in your mind.

Don't give up if you fail to follow through every time. Habits take about two months to form, according to research from University College London. At the same time, feel free to shake up your routine to keep your mind fresh, balanced, and motivated, says Ms. Samuelson.

"This can be as simple as switching your morning coffee to warm lemon water, shaking up your go-to playlist, or running your favorite route in reverse."

3. Small Steps Lead to Great Strides

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From the distance, the finish line may appear daunting. But focusing on smaller steps can help you stay motivated as you move closer to crossing that tape.

Start by writing down a series of smaller goals, McQuiston recommends. If unexperienced with marathons, set your sights on running a 5K, then gradually work up to longer races and more challenging courses.  Conduct research on marathon running, talk to runners who have completed such races, or find upcoming marathons nearby.

"Make a series of doable goals and with each victory, that gives you more confidence and gives you a mental boost to propel you forward," McQuiston said. "You have to have a game plan."

Don't forget to include timelines in which to meet each goal and with each milestone, celebrate!

4. Expect a Rocky Ride

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The path to success is strewn with challenges. So anticipate hurdles and incorporate strategies to overcome them.

If getting up for early morning workouts is a struggle, sleep in your (clean!) workout clothes so that you're ready to roll as soon as that alarm sounds, Samuelson says. If a busy work week is upending your gym routine, plan for a mini-workout in the morning.

Tie overcoming obstacles to a reward or special treat, adds McQuiston. Associating obstacles with rewards helps keep you on track when your brain tells you not to exercise.

5. Harness the Power of Green Exercise

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Exercising outdoors can work wonders on the body and mind. In fact, working out among nature triggers "feel good" hormones, which leads to greater enjoyment and satisfaction, McQuiston notes. Instead of heading to the gym, run around your nearest park or take a hike through the woods.

"Green exercise is phenomenal whether you're walking or running," she says. "It helps lift your mood, gives you more of a sense of wellbeing, and it can also help calm you down."

If bad weather is preventing an outside run, watch a nature program or listen to nature sounds while working out. Even taking a 10-minute walk around the block during a stressful workday can make all the difference, adds Samuelson.

"Exercise is not just about the body," she says. "But also the mind and spirit, thus it helps to be in an environment you enjoy."