What to do when you want to stop

5 ways to push through mental and physical road blocks in a marathon or triathlon

The more pavement you pound or roll over, or water you traverse, that little voice gets louder. You know the one: It says stop or just slow down, already! It might even scream it. And it happens to competitive and professional athletes and recreational weekend warriors alike. “In an endurance event, usually just over halfway toward the three-quarter mark, you’re going to want to quit and it will feel like too much,” says Kristen Dieffenbach, Ph.D., West Virginia-based executive board member of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP). Here, she explains why and how to overcome it.

Check your fuel.

In some cases, the desire to stop may be physiological. “Not only do your muscles need fuel but your brain does, too,” Dieffenbach says. “If you haven’t eaten enough and your glucose is low, you could be moving along at pace, then suddenly can’t keep it up. If it gets low enough, you can’t even think and you might get muddy, emotional, or sad.” For that reason, experiment with gels or other fuel sources in training sessions before the big event, to determine both in what form and how frequently you need to refuel.

Put mind over matter.

“As hunter-gatherer animals, we’re not designed to push red-line for long periods of time,” says Dieffenbach. “Our bodies will naturally back off and settle into a more comfortable pace if we don’t mentally push.” For that reason, she recommends coming to terms with the fact that, as an endurance athlete, your chosen sport isn’t going to always be comfortable. But thinking of it as pain and suffering isn’t going to get you through it. Instead, you have to tell yourself, “This is what it feels like to push.” Anything that’s not spun as a positive will be demoralizing.

Prepare for anything.

Your race plan shouldn’t only include details such as when to fuel, how to hit your target splits, and what to wear—controlling the controllables, per Dieffenbach—you also need to have a checklist in place for the issues that could come up. “If you need a bathroom break or your stomach gets upset, that may ruin the time goal,” Dieffenbach says. “You’re now off-pace, so how do you handle it? Do you push through anyway? Continue it as a quality workout? Have a back-up target race to do a month from now? Not planning for stuff like that can take you into the race with more nerves.”

Keep your eyes on (some) prize.

Unless you’re an elite athlete where making the podium is a possibility (and therefore, knowing your competition is an important part of the strategy), most endurance athletes are running against themselves, either for a personal best or some perceived expectation—“I should be able to finish in under X time.” And sometimes, when that desire to quit hits—at the halfway to three-quarter mark—you realize you’re so off-pace that your goal becomes a distant memory. Or, even if you’re on pace, your addled and unhappy hunter-gatherer brain can make up reasons to back off anyway. For those moments, you must have a non-time-related reason to keep going. Whether it’s the promise of a frosty beer or a sweaty hug at the finish, or even a mantra phrase that keeps you going, you have to practice making that mental image so powerful that it pulls you through. Take a deep breath and cue up your mental reminder that it will be worth it at the end, Dieffenbach says.

Know when it’s time to tap out.

There are a few “stop” signs you shouldn’t ignore such as acute pain. “For competitive athletes, you’re always managing something,” says Dieffenbach. But you should stop when the potential for getting injured becomes greater than the joy you get from continuing, she says. She also points out that you can burn out if your training becomes more like a chore that you dread than a process that fulfills you. “You can get your mojo back, but you have to consider: what’s the difference now? Can you do the hard work and also find the joy?”