Posted by: Joe English | May 12, 2008

Training: the first-time marathon runner 20-miler mental anguish

It’s always great to see another group of marathon runners graduate from my program by finishing their first marathons. But before getting to graduation day, they have to make it through their first 20 mile run. One of my groups — runners training for the upcoming Rock N Roll Marathon in San Diego — went through that process this weekend.

I’ve written about the 20 mile run before. It’s a unique animal for a number of reasons. For most runners it is much, much further than they have ever conceived of running before — even when they began their marathon training program. It’s just sort of hard to imagine the scale of 20 miles in your mind and, until you do it, it isn’t something that we grasp easily.

It’s also tough from the perspective that running 20 miles on your own — even with a small group — feels very different than the energy of race day. There you are slogging through mile after mile, getting more and more tired, stopping at the traffic lights, avoiding cars, and wondering to yourself, “now, why am I doing this again?”

That’s where I wanted to focus today. The mental anguish that the 20-miler sets up in the first-time marathon runner’s mind and maybe some ways to get around them.

The problem was brought into stark relief this weekend when as runner said to me, just after finishing her run, “I don’t feel ready for the marathon.” A 20 mile run has a way of leaving a runner with that feeling. I think the thought process goes a little like this:
– I just ran 20 miles.
– Wow, I need to go another 6 miles in the marathon.
– I’m really tired.
– My legs hurt.
– I don’t think I could go another 6 miles.
– What have I gotten myself into?
– I think I’m going to puke.
– I don’t feel ready for the marathon.

But there are a number of things that are different between between marathon day and that first 20 mile run. Let’s think about these for a minute:

First, your 20 mile training run comes at the end of a long training week — probably a long work-week too– and you most likely didn’t do the things that that you’ll do before your marathon. Things like getting extra sleep, drinking more fluid, eating more carbs and mentally preparing yourself for the hugest thing in your life. You come into a 20 mile training run much less prepared than you will come into your marathon.

Second, your training has been accumulating through the season and you don’t yet have the benefit of completing this long 20 mile run. The benefits of both your training and the 20 mile run won’t actually hit you for another 2 to 3 weeks, which is why you do that 20 miler a few weeks before the race. Another way to think about this is that you actually AREN’T ready for your marathon yet, because you’re just finishing the training during that 20 miler.

Third, you haven’t tapered yet. This rest period will allow to recover from your training and be fresh going into the race. The taper is a critical piece of your training and since you haven’t gone through that process, you haven’t reaped the benefits of it. Tapering allows you to recharge physically as well as to begin the mental process of preparing for the marathon itself.

Fourth, you haven’t had the mental build-up associated with the week or two before the race. Most marathon runners have “race head” for a couple of weeks before the race. This is the time when their thoughts are focused on the race. During this time, the brain is getting mentally prepared for the challenge. Since you haven’t gone through this period during your 20 miler, you don’t have that mental sharpness that you’ll have on race day.

Finally, race day is different in many ways than that regular Saturday morning on the empty streets of your home-town. From the moment you get up in the morning on marathon morning, you’ll be filled with a sort of gripping excitement — and maybe anxiety — that will carry you through much of the day. Being out there on a race course with hundreds or thousands of other runners sharpens your wits and tells your body that the day is an important one to perform. This is especially true in the early miles of marathon, which may seem to fly by (hopefully, you won’t be running them faster than your normal pace, but that’s another discussion).

Don’t get me wrong here. Those last six miles in the marathon will be tough and will test you fully, both physically and mentally. It’s going to be really tough out there. But judging your marathon preparation from the way you feel at the end of your 20 mile training you fails to take into consideration all of the differences between these two events and the fact that your preparation takes some time to “sink in.”

That feeling of “I don’t think I’m ready for the marathon” that you have after running 20 miles is a piece of the mental game that we play as we get ready for the race. Try to get your mind from the space of “I don’t think I’m ready” to “I’m done with my training and I’ve gone so far to get here.” When race day comes, you’ll find out how different it feels. Until then, it’s up to you to think positive thoughts and prepare for the big day with excited anticipation rather than dread.

Start getting excited about finishing your first marathon. You’ll be on that finish-line soon enough.

See the preview to our upcoming film 26.2 miles to Boston by clicking here.

Coach Joe English, Portland Oregon USA
Running Advice and News



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  2. […] First time marathon runner 20 miler anguish […]

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  4. haha, I just ran my 20 mile training run two days ago and every thought you listed above literally went through my head seconds after I finished. It is great to know that I’m not alone and that my training has been successful.

    I’m now more excited than ever for the big day.

  5. […] were normal and came across something which really helped re-calibrate my focus. A blog posting at is quite possibly the best-timed blog post I have ever […]

  6. Funny, I just finished my first 20 miler yesterday and said the exact same thing – I’m not ready (and might not run the marathon after all). But reading this put things in perspective. So.. thanks!

  7. […] Coach Joe English wrote several years ago about the mental anguish for the first time marathoner (ME) facing his first 20 miler.  ANGUISH […]

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