The Power of Positive Thinking in Training and Racing

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“Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right.”
– Henry Ford (attributed: The Rearder’s Digest 1947)

When we spend four months training for a marathon, during all those long runs, recovery runs, tempo runs and rest days, we are not just training our legs and hearts. We’re training our brains, too.

Blah blah. Inspirational cliches. Blah blah.

But really, they’re not! There is actual science behind everything I’m going to say here. Since I’m not really good at explaining science, though, I suggest that you read Matt Fitzgerald’s book How Bad Do You Want It? It’s a series of stories of athletes overcoming physical and mental barriers to win and it’s as entertaining to read as it is educational, and inspiring!

One of the book’s early chapters is dedicated to coping strategies for overcoming perceived physical limitations in racing — which are often more mental than physical. For example: you are running a marathon. At mile 21, you hit the wall and feel like you can not go another step. Somehow, with the encouragement of other runners and spectators, you pick yourself up and continue. Then finally, you see that finish line and – go figure! – you find in your legs the strength and ability to sprint.

Hitting the wall is, simply put, the brain going into self preservation mode. Ever felt strong all through mile 21 or 22 of a marathon, and then found yourself slowing down and starting to question why you’re even doing this to yourself? Yeah, that’s your brain telling your legs to slow down because it senses your low glycogen stores, or that you’re dehydrated, or overheated… Or your brain is just tired! It’s no easy to stay focused for 3-4 hours at a time, right? But do you really need to slow down, or can you squeak another [however many miles] of struggle from your legs, knowing that your heart and lungs would likely not explode?

One of the coping skills used to achieve this is acceptance: you know you will suffer physically, so brace yourself and expect that there will be pain.

Another is the power of positive thinking. Again: if you think you can, you are probably right. If you think you can’t… you are probably right! Positive thoughts can take away some of the suck and, next thing you know, you relax yourself into your stride again and carry on to the finish.

I’ve been practicing those two things on my long runs and workouts, which have been getting progressively harder in the past few weeks. Last week, with two weeks to go until the Boston Marathon, I had to complete my hardest long run yet. It wasn’t even the longest in this training cycle, and it was a repeat of a long-run workout I had done three weeks earlier. With all the work my legs have been doing in these past months, though, it definitely felt harder.

This was the workout: start with a two-mile warmup easy. Then do four times of five minutes at tempo pace (7:40 – 7:25), with one-minute recovery. Follow that with 70 minutes steady, with some hills. Finish with another four times of five minutes at 7:40 – 7:25, one minute recovery. Total time: around 2:20.

As soon as I started my first four tempo sets, I realized those would be more challenging than I thought. I was tired already! I didn’t enjoy running at this moment. I just couldn’t. It sucked! Then I caught myself and realized that if I kept going like this, I would either flake out on the workout (worst case), or just have a really, really miserable 2 hrs 20 minutes.

Then something gave me my mojo back. I remembered that this very same morning, a bunch of friends were running the hilly Rock’n’Roll San Francisco half marathon. That’s a tough course! So I thought, maybe for each ounce of suffering I have to suffer, it would only be fair that they feel the exact opposite. Maybe my suffering was translating into running awesomeness for them?

And so for each of the four five minutes of suck I had to endure, I decided to think of a friend running that race — and send all the running mojo and awesomeness I could imagine to this friend. Then spend 70 minutes thinking about everyone running on that day, at that time, and how they are enjoying a beautiful day out and incredible views, and earning awesome medals and drinking beer at the finish line.

And that is how my “Newton’s (totally made up) Fourth Law of Motion” was born:


And guess what: I was in it again! The second set of five-minute tempo intervals was hard, no question. But it wasn’t sucky and miserable. I just did my best to stay focused and get it done. And so I did 🙂 (Also, all of my friends at RnR SF had an awesome time!)

And that was my blabber of the week. Maybe the next time you’re having a tough run, think that your suffering is helping power another runner somewhere out there: it might help!

Other than that, I’ve had a solid two weeks of training:

Boston Marathon training, two weeks to go

Easy recovery run, 30 minutes; 3.2 miles. I’ve been calling these my “Rest Day” runs because they really are that: a relaxed, meditative stroll to shake off the fatigue of the week before and get ready for another week of awesome training!

Structured fartlek: 10 minutes easy, 10 min moderate @ 8 min/ mile; 10 min easy, 10 min steady @ 7:30 min/ mile; 10 min easy, 10 min hard @7:00 min/ mile. A total of 7.5 miles in an hour. Felt surprisingly easy and fun!

Broken tempo run, 3x 2-mile intervals with 5 minutes easy recovery in between, start at 7:45 and descend a bit with each 2-mile set. My paces were 7:45, 7:39 – 7:29, 7:26 – 7:40, 7:40. I guess I took the middle set too fast and ran out of steam for the third. Still, a solid run: 9.2 miles in the bank.

Easy pace on a hilly trail route, 6.8 miles and 1020 ft of climbing in 1:06.

A photo posted by Aleks Todorova (@aleksruns) on

Easy run, 4.8 miles in 47 minutes.

Easy trail run with some pick-ups: every 10 minutes, pick up the pace for 30 seconds, then settle into a steady pace for another 3 min or so, then slow back down to easy. Ran 6.5 miles in an hour.

Long run with tempo intervals workout described earlier. 16.7 miles in 2:22.

Total miles: 55

One week go to!

Well, it really is two weeks, because the Boston Marathon is on a Monday – so the following week will be “race week plus one day.” Still, this was my last week of hard work before I begin tapering for the race!

Easy recovery run (or “rest day”): 35 min, 3.6 miles.

Steady-pace run in the heat. I was supposed to run 60 min to 1:15, and normally, I would go for the top of the range. But it was hot, I didn’t bring any water, started out faster than I probably should have, and decided to call it quits after 1:09. Well, another 8.3 miles in the Boston Bank!

Easy run, 4 miles.

A photo posted by Aleks Todorova (@aleksruns) on

A short run with some faster miles: 10 min easy, then 25 moderate @ 8:15 to 7:45 pace. Then 4x 30-second strides.

Whenever I see “strides” on my schedule, I know the following day will be hard. Sure enough: I had 2 miles easy warmup, followed by 10 miles at 8:10-7:50 (aka race pace). My final long(ish) run before Boston! It wasn’t easy-breezy, but I did it! I had to really focus on my form and pace 6-7 miles in, as there were some rolling hills to get through. I simply imagined I was running on a track and ticked off those miles quarter by quarter, picturing in my head running the curves, then the straights, and then again – lap after lap. It helped!

Also: Here is me and my Boston Strong ProCompression socks. I love the color, but it matches nothing I own. So, now I guess I will have to compose an entire new running outfit for Boston around the color yellow. Any suggestions? (All along, I had been planning to run in the new Free Love print from Skirt Sports – photo below – but now I’m thinking the Tantrum print… Is it bad luck if I wear the same skirt in two consecutive marathons? #RunnerProblems #AmIRight?)

A photo posted by Aleks Todorova (@aleksruns) on

But first… it’s taper time!

5 thoughts on “The Power of Positive Thinking in Training and Racing

  • Pingback: The Boston Marathon was everything I thought it would be – and more! | Train with Purpose. Race with Heart

  • April 10, 2016 at 8:29 am

    I favor the Tantrum print myself with those socks. Love your new Newton’s Law! I’m starting my own taper week for a half next weekend, and I’m going to use that when I hit my mental wall(s) from now on. 🙂

    • April 10, 2016 at 10:13 am

      Good luck at your half marathon!

      • April 18, 2016 at 11:45 am

        Thanks so much! Had a PR yesterday, so I have to thank the runner that had a suck day out there. Following you on the Boston Marathon app today–so happy for you!

        • April 18, 2016 at 3:26 pm

          Congratulations on your PR! I guess someone had a great run this afternoon while I was shuffling those last six miles of Boston, but I gave it all I had! 🙂


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