Navigating the No-Man’s Land of Marathon Training

It's not easy to get into a summer solstice mindset when your running trail is still an ice rink.
It’s not easy to get into a summer solstice mindset when your running trail is still an ice rink.

When the excitement of starting a new plan wears off just as your mileage creeps steadily up, when your goal race is still too far away to feel real but your tired legs are begging for a reason to skip that tempo run–beware! You may have entered the no-man’s land of marathon training. And your motivation could be in serious danger (if it hasn’t already been snuffed out entirely). Ask me how I know.

My race day is still at least a season away as I train through ice and sub-30 temps for a summer solstice marathon. And with 11 weeks to go in an 18 week plan, the competitive fire in my belly has been replaced by a nagging desire to eat peanut-butter ice cream every night.

How do we stay motivated in these long, tough weeks of training? How do we remain mentally engaged enough to push hard when legs and lungs are far from interested in cooperating?

As I’m smack in the middle of no-man’s land these days, I’ve been pondering these questions late at night while sitting on the foam roller and eating ice cream. (At least I can multi-task like a boss.) Anyway, I’ve come up with a few ideas on how to stay on course during these tough middle-something weeks.

1. Stay in the mile. Or, in New-Agey terms (cue the Yanni music), be present. Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you to reach deep down into your center and “feeeeeeel the tempo run”, but I am going to encourage you to run the mile you’re in. Pure and simple. Don’t think about tomorrow’s 17 miler with 14 at marathon pace. No reason to spoil a perfectly good easy run with fear about what’s coming next. And if you’re in the middle of a tempo, you don’t need to muster the courage to get through all 7 miles of it at once. Process the discomfort as it comes. Take it mile by mile. If you’re in mile three of seven and amazingly don’t feel as though you’d rather lop off your head than run another mile at tempo pace, savor that feeling of “strength.” Take it while you have it. Don’t think about how the last four miles might feel (even if experience would suggest that the head lopping idea will be preferable to finishing the run). Enjoy each mile to the extent you can, be present, and stay in that mile!

2. Respect every workout. Now, I know I just told you to stay in the mile—no fretting about those tough workouts ahead during the middle of an easy one. But, those tough workouts? They need just a little bit of R.E.S.P.E.C.T (maybe even a lot). Every tempo, every track workout, every long run. Even if they look easy on paper compared to the runs you churned out last week, I promise if you approach a workout expecting it to feel remotely easy, it will rise up and kick you in your presumptuous arse. (Again, ask me how I know.) Some small but practical ways to respect those quality workout days include hydrating like a madwoman the night before, going to bed at a decent hour, and expecting the run to be difficult (then you can be pleasantly surprised if it isn’t).

3. Phone a friend. Nothing beats the added motivation and accountability that comes from having a friend to join you in clicking off the miles. I’ve found that the easy, recovery miles are my best bet for company as the conversational nature ensures I truly take it easy. Having a friend at your side also helps distract from the wicked blister and tired legs you acquired courtesy of the previous day’s long run. And for those long slow runs, nothing helps the time go faster than good company.

Abate Breaks Tape
Picture yourself doing this! Why not? (Photo credit: familymwr)

4. Imagine your story. I admit I might take this one a little too far. I’ve been known to fabricate entire scenarios to get my adrenaline going. In these running daydreams, I’m of course the heroine and must run fast enough to save my children from eminent harm, or perhaps, fast enough to smoke past that know-it-all mean girl (whether from middle school, college or corporate finance–there’s typically one at every stage, yes?). But seriously, those long tough runs are a perfect time to think about your upcoming race. Visualize yourself cresting a hill like a freakin’ beast in mile 20 (gaah! a hill in mile 20! que horror!). Picture yourself crossing the finish line, your goal time flashing overhead. Turn up your favorite running tune and montage yourself into the most inspiring (imaginary) race video ever. Yes, doing this sort of thing makes you a total cheeseball (guilty), but (a) no one has to know the full extent of your cheeseball-ishness, and (b) at least you’ll be a wicked fast cheeseball.

5. Add in a tune-up race or fun run. Your goal race may still be a couple months away, but there’s no reason you can’t kick up the near-term motivation and stave off the training blahs by jumping into a shorter race. Whether you race a 10k as a tune-up or incorporate a half marathon into a fun long run, adding a race to your calendar can break up the monotony of training and provide extra motivation.

Have you ever struggled with motivation during those middle weeks of marathon training? What helped you stay engaged and motivated? For you veteran marathoners, what stage of training do you find to be toughest? Do you ever create self-inspiring cheeseball montages in your head? (Come on, we’re all friends here. You can ‘fess up.)

Recovering corporate hamster-wheeler turned Alaskan hausfrau, mother of two and running enthusiast. Kind of a June Cleaver in tempo shorts...minus the makeup and vacuum. Will run to great lengths to get a moment of peace.

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  1. To beat the motivation doldrums, I try to find a shorter distance race as a “training run” to keep my motivation high. Just being in a race atmosphere and seeig other runners pumps me up, and I get that competitive edge back.

    1. That race atmosphere does work wonders, doesn’t it? I’m hoping to do a 10k next month, to break up the monotony a bit.

  2. When I did my first marathon last fall I was somewhat overwhelmed with all the training and felt like it took over my life.
    This winter I trained for a 30k race, which I completed a week and a half ago. In a month and a half I am registered for the Ottawa Half Marathon, but am now considering doing a bib transfer and switching to the Full. Somehow, mentally it doesn’t seem as overwhelming since my focus was on the 30k. So I think it definitely makes a difference having a goal race in the middle of training, something that allows you to break your training into more manageable sections.

    1. Yes! I felt the same way about marathon training (life take-over) when I did my first training cycle! This second time around it feels less intimidating, maybe because I’ve adapted to the higher mileage base and it feels “normal” vs. “this is nuts”. Good luck with your half (or full!) next month!

  3. I’m in Anchorage, training for the Mayor’s myself! I’ve done it twice, but never really committed to the training, taking a run/walk plan and being happy with having a low stress race day. This time, I am buckling down, training hard, and hoping to see a 4:XX:XX on that finish clock instead of a 5! The pavement starting to peek out has helped make training a bit more interesting. The mental jukebox can get pretty loopy on those long runs though – last really amusing one was “The Dream of the 90’s” from the show Portlandia. I’m sure I’ll be seeing you out on the trails!

    1. Dream of the 90s!? Hahaha! Sounds like we have similarly stocked mental jukeboxes. (Random fun Anchorage fact I learned yesterday–the Orso restaurant has a drink called “Put a Bird on It” in honor of Portlandia.) So glad to hear you’re training for Mayor’s too and going for that sub-5! I agree that the pavement sightings have REALLY helped my attitude toward getting out there. Let me know if you want some company sometime for a run–I promise to be more entertaining than singing Dream of the 90s to yourself. ๐Ÿ™‚

      1. Maybe once I get a little more training under my belt, your easy pace won’t be my outright sprint pace! ๐Ÿ™‚ But race season is starting – if we end up at the same events, we should definitely meet!

  4. Our marathon’s must be around the same time because this is exactly where I am right now! I’ve started covering the remaining part of the schedule with sticky notes so I can’t look ahead. I am trying to take one week at a time; otherwise I am completely overwhelmed. The other thing I am trying to come up with some new routes to keep it more interesting. Hopefully the snow melts off the trails soon!

    1. Can I ask which marathon you’re doing? Sounds we have both marathon timing and the slowly melting snow in common! ๐Ÿ™‚ Good call on the sticky-note cover up. We can’t be worrying about the next week when the current week gives us more than enough to tackle!

      1. I am running the Charlevoix Marathon in northern Michigan. This week is a bit of a cut back week – yeah!! Feeling tired but strong. I just read your most recent training log; I hope your ankle feels better! And don’t let the mind games get the best of you ๐Ÿ™‚