Mental fortitude and training for a fall marathon

When I set out to train for my first marathon over twenty-one years ago, I thought a fall race presented the best opportunity. Even after my second marathon – a spring race – I still believed it was easier to train through the summer than the winter. Of course, I was in my 30s and heat didn’t bother me as much as it does now.

As a coach, and with the experience of having completed eight marathons (four fall and four spring), I will, whenever possible, steer my clients to a spring race. Training through the harsh conditions of winter, I have learned, provides a better opportunity for building what my coach referred to as “mental fortitude.” This is so necessary for staying focused and pushing through in the final miles of the 26.2-mile trek.

Some will argue that training in the heat and humidity of summer also provides the needed training for the mind. It does, but not in the same way. Training through extreme heat and humidity can deplete the body of valuable resources, leaving you drained for the next run. “Pushing through” in these conditions, may be the worst thing you can do. The lesson for the mind here is to know when to stop.

While I would strongly suggest that first-time marathoners do a race that would provide the best opportunity for optimal training conditions, many first-time marathoners have their heart set on a particular race. For many of us that’s a big city race close to home; for New Yorkers and Chicagoans, that’s a fall race. And who am I to talk anyone out of doing a meaningful race?

Some must reads for summer training:

“Marathon Training in the Heat and Humidity,” Runner’s World

“How to run and train through a hot summer,” Competitor Running

“Electrolytes for Runners: A Definitive Guide,” RunnersConnect

Building mental fortitude for a fall marathon is more about developing the discipline and focus to train smart. Training smart I would argue is more critical than training hard. Training smart means staying hydrated; not just during your runs, but consistently throughout the months of training. It also means paying attention to nutrition and making sure you maintain an appropriate balance of electrolytes throughout your training. It means scheduling long training runs at times and locations that will provide for the coolest conditions – for example early morning on a shaded path.

Training smart also means knowing when to stop; knowing when conditions aren’t right. The risk of “pushing through” extreme heat and humidity far outweighs any benefit that could be achieved of completing the last couple miles of an 18 or 20 miler. It’s okay to stop at 16 when you’re feeling overwhelmingly depleted. This is where your head must listen to your body! This is not the same as thinking “this cold and wind really sucks” and running anyway. Heat and humidity can present life threatening issues.

And no, don’t try to make up the miles on your next long run. Rest. Hydrate. Get your electrolytes in balance and strategize how to maximize success on the next long run. It’s necessary to get out and get your body ready for running in the heat because you may encounter heat on race day (especially in Chicago), although you don’t have to do every long run outdoors. I can tell you from experience, a 20-mile run on the treadmill does build mental fortitude no matter when your training.

Lakefront Trail offers a nice breeze, but little shade without some cloud over. Chicago, Illinois. August 2018


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