How I got my body and mind to run 2:57 at Manchester Marathon in April

There’s so much info out there on how to physically run a marathon, what sessions to run, how far to go, weekly miles, strength training, paces to hit. However, when it comes to do how to deal with your mind when putting your body through a sub 3 marathon; there isn’t much out there. Which is strange because dealing with the mind is so important and it’s how I got my body and mind to run 2:57 at Manchester Marathon in April.

I've ran 3 marathons the first 2 was London Marathon and the third Manchester, Marathon all 3 had a sub 3 (or thereabouts) goal because my other race distance times predicted it was possible but it wasn’t until Manchester that this came together.

So mentally how did I do it?

First up if you’re not familiar with The Chimp Paradox then this all may sound a little strange but bear with me! It all started 12 weeks out from the marathon when, at this point, I worked out my ‘Whys’. Why do I want to achieve this - I mean really why? If it had anything to do with self worth, validation from other people, my coaching business then this isn’t the ‘why’ in its true sense. If it was based on this then its probably not your time to run a marathon as you are going to find it so much harder from a pressure point of view. I really sat and thought about my why’s and I genuinely just want to know what I am capable of, where are my limits and what can my body do. Knowing that it was truly for me helped with any pressure.

Manchester Marathon ASICS Metaspeed Sky Plus
Cruising past the 3 hour pack with awesome people

Practically, I also set my training out on a spreadsheet, each run, session, race, strength work and then every time I ticked one off, I would give it a score out of 10 and write a couple of sentences about how I found each session mentally and physically (this was a game changer on race week - ill tell you why below).

Next, when I had a race during the block I would write down race tactics (splits, nutrition etc), pre race prep (kit, recce the start, eat 2 hours before) and how I was going to run the race psychologically. This involved the things that I was practicing throughout training especially on sessions such as:

I practiced all of the above in training, this is because very simply we have two parts to the mind, the chimp and the human. The chimp wants all the glory but do nothing to get it, it was to scream and shout and have a tantrum, it doesn’t want to do anything hard. Whereas the human can rationalise, be logical and can deal with anything thrown its way. The human and chimp are constantly in communication with each other, sometimes the chimp wins (reading this now have you noticed your chimp recently?!?) sometimes the human wins. Ultimately you both want the same goal, in this case a sub 3 marathon - the human wants to know what the body can do, where are the limits and the chimp wants bragging rights and a shiny medal. The chimp however can stop this from happening if its screaming so loud on race day that it gets in the way of the human. Something thats happened on many occasions but now was the time to deal with it - to manage the mind/chimp. By practicing the above over and over again I almost wanted it to become automatic on race/marathon day and I wanted the mind to be familiar with what was going on. This prep worked and at Barcelona Half Marathon, in prep for Manchester, I ran a PB of 1:23 - a big confidence booster (this also went on the spreadsheet along with race reflections).

Taper and the night before

During taper and on the morning of the marathon, this is where the evidence building came into its own. I looked down the spreadsheet and saw positivity 8/9 out of 10s (some 10/10s), mental and physical evidence, facts, that sub 3 was completely doable something that the chimp mind just couldn’t argue with. This really helped calm the mind to keep the mental battery as full as it could be ready for the start line.

This is also important, starting with a full mental battery, practice relaxing the mind on the easy runs and save psyching up for when it counts. Try and remain calm on the week leading up to the marathon. You want that battery to be as full as possible so you’re on top of your mind game during the race.

Race day

On race day, I was on the start line knowing that this was on, with confidence, avoiding negativity. Any time the chimp wanted to panic I referred it to the evidence. All I had to do now is let the body do the talking and get the mind out of the way for just less than 3 hours. By the way I was still nervous; adrenaline is a good thing, it’s preparing you for what’s to come and it will subside when you run. You don’t want to go into the race complacent either as thats too far the other way; you’ve got to be prepared to work when it counts.

Manchester Marathon Finish Line
Mile 25 - Smiling my way to the finish - we did it!

The first 5k was just about letting the adrenaline settle down and get into a rhythm, it always busy at the start so its just about settling the mind and getting in to it. Throughout the race I had to deal with the mindset waves thinking that its too long, its bored, it wants it over with, even near the end when the sub 3 was in the bag the mind just said ease off for the last couple of K now 2:59 is still sub 3 so be happy with that!! (This is all the chimp not the human). I just kept saying let me take over now chimp, we are nearly there all you’ve got to give me is a little longer and we’ve won. All the time checking in with the body, the pace, the parts of the body that feel good confirming that the body can do this. The level headed human (me) can do this. From half way I congratulated myself after each KM out loud ‘Well done Natalie’. I just saw it as a process, staying in the mile, managing the chimp, water, gel, check in, congratulating. As I had made such a conscious effort to practice this in training it wasn’t as much of a battle to pull this out on race day.

Then 300m to go, I let the chimp out of the bag as we screamed ‘come on!!’ about 10 times and then seriously celebrated crossing the finishing line and reliving it the days after. Not just because I had hit sub 3 but because I managed the mind, the chimp and I worked together and so it was only right to let the chimp have the glory. Do not deprive you or the chimp of the celebration, enjoy it, treat yourself.

I have absolutely no doubt that mind setting myself to sub 3 is what made the difference. Your body is made up of matter, you can train it to be in sub 3 shape physically but without the mind getting on board, for me, it wasn’t going to happen. To top it off, I actually enjoyed the experience. The first marathon I have enjoyed. Yes, I had to work during the marathon (thats a given) but I actually enjoyed it and the race photos say it all.

Be friends with your chimp but don't let it stop your reaching your goals. Remember you both want it if its for the right reasons, you've just got to let the human do it and not the chimp!

written by

Natalie Bunce

Personal Trainer/LiRF/ Run Coach from Nottingham

Club: Best Athletics

marathon 10k half marathon Strength Training