Marathon nerves

“Whoa! My autumn marathon is almost upon me and I don’t think I’ll be ready…”

Are you thinking this? I know some of the athletes I coach and others that I also talk to are – even the really experienced ones –  it’s those marathon nerves.

I’ve run seven marathons over the years, and while that pales into insignificance compared to many runners these days, six of those I was attempting to set a personal best. I ran the PB attempts in two blocks of three, each race being six months apart:

April 2013: Brighton (03:25:45)

October 2013: Bournemouth (03:24:28)

April 2014: Brighton (03:15:51)

October 2016: Bournemouth (03:03:35)

April 2017: Manchester (03:00:29)

November 2017: Abingdon (02:59:04)

I then ran the London Marathon in April 2019 (03:16:36) for the experience and because I had earned a place in the earlier marathons.

Now, you would think that running the marathons the way I did, I would have confidence in each of those (perhaps apart from my very first one). You would think that I would have the confidence to:

  1. Be able to run the distance
  2. Be able to set a decent time based on the previous one

This was not the case! Even though I had run a marathon only six months earlier for maras two and three in each block, I was still nervous that I may not even complete it. I still got the marathon nerves.

Marathon nerves are normal. This feeling of “I’ll never be able to run 26.2 miles at the pace I want” is completely normal. Halfway through my training on each one of those marathons, I said to myself: 

I can’t even run 15 miles at my target pace, how am I going to run 26.2 miles?

What if I blow up and don’t even finish it?

And in the first three marathons I ran, I did have short walking sections (30 seconds or so) after mile 21. But I still completed the distance and still met my overall time goals – apart from Brighton in April of 2014… I wanted 03:14:something to get a Good For Age place for London – I cried when I came across the line and vowed not to run another marathon until I could get close to 03:12:00.

All my club mates feel the same. My training partner for the second block of marathons is quite a lot faster than me, and he still gets those feelings. We may hide them from other runners and put on a brave face or go the other way and say we don’t care – but we do really.

The body and mind are designed to adapt. At halfway through training, going from running 15 miles at your target pace to running 26.2 miles at (or near this pace) in just six weeks (or fewer) is an amazing adaption. 

However far you are through your training, think back to where you were at the beginning. Realise how far you’ve already come.

Just as the saying:

the marathon starts at mile 20” is true in terms of real effort


the last half of your training is where you see the magic of all your hard work appear” is also true.


If you are following a good training plan, then trust that it’ll get you there and keep putting in the consistent work – the magic will happen.

Being nervous about completing your marathon and/or getting the time you want is partly down to how you view it mentally. We may do this differently depending on whether we have experience of marathons or not. And while having experience of marathons can be an advantage, it can also cloud our thinking – especially if we have had bad experiences, injuries, or always run them for fun and now we want a time.

Take a step back and give yourself the time to change your mind. A few minutes each day appreciating how far you’ve come can set you at ease. Start to imagine the feelings you’ll get when you finish the marathon in time you want.

Begin to visualise the hurdles you may face (fatigue, fuelling, hydration), and then visualise how you get over these hurdles. If you know the course, do some mental run throughs, visualising reaching milestones when you want to – but also visualising the difficult parts of the course and how you are going to tackle them. I used Google Street view to go around the courses and imagine myself running the route.

This mental preparation can help us feel more confident about the marathon. I employed visualisation in every one of the marathons I raced, and even in London which I ran purely for the fun of it.

During the Abingdon marathon I ran in 2017, I completely blanked out between mile 22 and mile 25 – I remember absolutely nothing about those miles. However, I had visualised how I was going to handle the race between mile 20 and the finish. I had also visualised the time I wanted and what the absolute fall back time was (02:59:59).

It may be pure coincidence that I was able to maintain enough of a pace during those black-out miles, or it may have something to do with my brain and body working together to achieve what I had mentally rehearsed – we’ll never know, but I know which I prefer to believe.

Go out and take on that marathon and enjoy every step! Embrace those marathon nerves!

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