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Which Mile is the Hardest During A Marathon?

Just saying the word “marathon “brings on a flood of excitement, exhaustion, and sometimes pure dread. Some miles during a marathon are more difficult than other miles. Which mile tends to be the hardest mile during a marathon race?

For most runners, the hardest mile during the marathon is between the 18th and 23rd mile, closer towards the finish line. The precise number will differ between runners depending on their mental toughness and overall stamina. 

A marathon is approximately 26 miles in total, so the 18th-23rd mile is a very trying part of the race. At this stage, runners are physically exhausted and mentally exhausted. So, this is where they’ll struggle the most to keep going forward, resulting in a mental struggle that’s equal or more intense than the physical. Between the 18th and 23rd mile is also where runners might experience the infamous – hitting the wall – feeling.

In this article, we’re going to explore all the factors that contribute to the most challenging marathon mile. With the handy tips that we’ll also provide, you’ll be much better prepared to overcome the most challenging miles of your next marathon.

What Is The Hardest Mile Of A Marathon?

Many marathon runners claim that the most challenging mile of a marathon is somewhere between the 18th and 23rd one. Of course, this number is highly subjective and depends on many different factors. Some runners might start feeling fatigued quicker than their competitors based on their stamina, conditioning, or mental toughness.

But what makes it the most challenging mile in the first place? Well, exhausted muscles and a buildup of lactic acid will make that mile hard, at least physically. Then comes the mental aspect of the challenge, when the voice inside tells you to stop and give up.

Remember: your mind will give up far quicker than your body ever will. After all, your body only follows instructions and doesn’t think for itself. When your muscles start getting tired, your mind will begin sending out the message telling you to stop.

Depending on your mental conditioning, that voice might be soft and easy to ignore. But even in the toughest of people, that voice will gradually get stronger and louder until you eventually decide to listen to it and stop running.

The key, then, is to be physically and mentally tough enough so that you only stop after you’ve completed the race.

Can beginner runners run a marathon?

Determining The Hardest Marathon Mile

The hardest mile is never the same for all runners. So, you have to do some experimenting on yourself to find out what’s the hardest marathon mile for you. As with other elements in physical training, you must learn to ‘listen to your own body’.

If you’re an experienced marathon runner, you’ll have plenty of first-hand knowledge as to when your body starts to give up during a marathon. With that information, you can make an educated guess as to when you’ll face your hardest mile on the next marathon you join.

But if you are about to participate in your first marathon, how do you determine the hardest mile?

Suppose that’s the case for you. Then, you’d have to rely on how your body feels while training. As you might already know, marathon training programs will consist of regular short runs and the occasional long run.

Pay close attention to your body and how it reacts during both types of runs, and take note of when you start to feel exhausted.

The more you continue to study how your body performs, the more you can estimate when you’re likely to feel exhausted during a full marathon. That will take away the element of surprise when you hit the hardest mile during an actual marathon.

And with that, you’ll have an extra advantage. Given that you already knew when to expect that hardest mile, it won’t demotivate you too much, and you’ll be able to push through.

Weather, Elevations, Hills, Aid Stations

Your physical and mental toughness isn’t the only thing that determines the most challenging mile of a marathon. Those are internal factors that are within your control, though there are external factors unique to the marathon itself.

These include things like the weather, elevations along the route, hills, and aid stations set up by the organizers.

The temperature and humidity levels have a significant impact on your energy levels. For instance, hot and dry weather will dehydrate you, even more, leading to quicker exhaustion. Under these conditions, you’ll have to adjust your expectations on where the hardest mile will be for you.

The same is true for elevations and hills. You won’t get exhausted so quickly if you’re running a straight and level path. Elevations and hills, on the other hand, can tire you out pretty drastically.

Lastly, the aid stations. Well-organized marathons will place aid stations strategically along the path. At each one, you’ll be able to get water and food to replenish your energy. If you make full use of these aid stations to fuel up, hopefully, you’ll delay your hardest mile towards the end of the race.

As a side benefit, stopping or slowing down at aid stations will also give you a chance to catch your breath while your muscles recover, even if only for a while.

Overcoming The Hardest Mile Of The Marathon

Typically, your mind will try to give up long before your body does. So when you’ve reached your hardest mile of a marathon, you have to remind yourself that most of the battle is happening in your head, and not with your legs and the ground beneath you.

The first step to overcoming the hardest mile is to expect it. People often give up on long runs because their minds get overwhelmed by the exhaustion they feel in their bodies. If you prepare yourself mentally for the hardest mile, it won’t catch you off-guard when it finally happens.

Second, train your self-talk. All of us talk to yourselves in our minds, but not everyone does so in a positive and supportive manner. Remember: you are your own coach out there. So you’ll have to talk to yourself positively. When you say to yourself, “You can do it!”, that’s a hundred times more meaningful than when the crowd says it to you from the sidelines.

Lastly, adjust your physical pace. When you know that you’re experiencing the toughest mile, it’s an excellent idea to slow down and give your body a chance to rest. You don’t have to come to a complete stop, but you need to slow down and let your body ‘regroup’, so to speak.

If you manage your toughest mile wisely, you’ll eventually get what marathon runners call a ‘second wind’. That’s when you suddenly feel like you’re getting a boost of energy and inspiration to continue on your marathon.

For more info on the mental side of running check out:

You Vs. You – Who Will Win?

How To Train Your Brain For Success

You can never underestimate the mental endurance you need for a marathon. After all, part of the reason most people love marathons is that it gives them a chance to test their mental limits. That’s why you should train your brain just as much as your body to succeed in a marathon.

How can you do this? Three things: visualization, positive self-talk, and mindfulness.

Train your brain to bring out your inner coach and silence your inner critic!

Visualization is when you imagine your intended outcome. Typically, people do this by imagining what it’s going to be like when they run past the finish line of a marathon. That can be a handy tool in training your brain for success, as long as you do it correctly.

The key to effective visualization is to be as detailed as possible. When you imagine crossing the finish line, don’t just imagine what it would look like. Imagine what you’re going to hear as you pass that line, such as the cheers of the crowd. Or, imagine how your body will feel once you’ve finished the race.

As mentioned earlier, you are your own coach when you’re running a marathon. So, you should learn to talk to yourself more encouragingly. That way, you’ll become your own cheerleader throughout the race, especially during the toughest miles.

Lastly, mindfulness. Remember how we mentioned that you should ‘listen to your body’? That’s precisely what mindfulness means. It’s the ability to pay attention to how your body feels every step along with the race.

Being mindful helps you manage your breathing, your pace, and a lot of other things within your control. It will also lead to reduced stress and physical exhaustion since your mind will focus on the things that are within your control, things that you can adjust to perform better.

Which Mile Is The Hardest During A Marathon Race

What Do Pro Runners Say About Getting Past The Hardest Part Of A Run

All pro runners know that on the other side of the hardest mile is what they call their ‘second wind’. It’s a very common feeling when they feel a sudden burst of energy and strength that allows them to continue running at a fast pace.

The toughest part comes right before that second wind kicks in. The reason for this is simple: you’ve been running for so long that you feel like you’re about to pass out. So, even though you know in your mind that your second wind is coming soon, a part of you refuses to believe it.

In a way, that scenario will test the faith of even the top pro runners. But one thing’s for sure, that faith always pays off. Eventually, you’ll gain your second win and continue running as if that hardest mile never happened.

Why The Marathon Can Be So Tough To Finish

Everyone knows that a marathon is so tough to finish, but why is that? The most obvious answer to that is because of the distance; a marathon is 26.2 miles long, and that takes anywhere from 4 or more hours of running to complete.

You see, when you perform any intense physical activity, your body will burn the carbohydrates stored in your liver and muscles known as glycogen. Unfortunately, that form of ‘fuel’ only lasts about 120 minutes or two hours.

When that glycogen runs out, your body will switch to a less efficient fuel, your body fat. When that starts to happen, runners will feel a dip in their energy. They won’t be able to push themselves as hard as they could earlier, so their performance suffers.

As this process takes place, it’s much harder to continue running your marathon. Your body will feel sluggish, but more importantly, so will your mind. As your body gets tired, it will send signals to your brain to tell you to stop and rest.

But never forget: one of the most rewarding aspects of a marathon is overcoming these challenges. As difficult as it is, the feeling of overcoming the most challenging parts of a marathon is so intense that people often get addicted to it.

Think about it; we all have that one friend who runs marathons as if it’s their job. Talk to them, and they’ll tell you that there is no greater high than completing a marathon, especially when it involves overcoming the physical and mental challenges associated with it.

What Are The World’s Hardest Marathons?

Throughout the world, there are marathons that are notoriously hard to finish. Some of them include the Antarctic Ice Marathon, the Tenzing Hillary Everest Marathon, and the Inca Trail Marathon (Runner’s World – Worlds Hardest Races)

As their names may suggest, the toughest marathons often take place in the harshest climates. They could happen in freezing temperatures, in the hot desert, or even in rainforests. Why? Because these conditions make the run many more times more challenging than an urban or countryside marathon.

Because these marathons are so uniquely challenging, enthusiasts travel from all over the world just to participate in these events. Hefty fees, like the $20,000 starting price for the Antarctic Ice Marathon, might discourage casual runners, but not the pros.

These marathons typically consist of only the best of the best marathon runners from all over the world.

Final Thoughts

When it comes to the difficulties of running a marathon, one crucial thing to remember is that your difficulties aren’t the same as that of other runners. While it’s good to compete with other people, at the core of it all, you’re competing with yourself.

So, don’t be too hard on yourself if the hardest mile of your marathon comes sooner or lasts longer than other runners. As your physical and mental toughness improves, so will your overall marathon performance.

Coach Scott is a published author and RRCA certified running coach (Level 2). He has published over 20 books including, Beginner's Guide to Half Marathons: A Simple Step-By-Step Solution to Get You to the Finish Line in 12 Weeks! (Beginner To Finisher Book 3), which has become an Amazon International #1 bestseller. Scott specializes in helping new runners become injury-free race finishers. He recently completed his 14th half marathon race. 

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Which Mile is the Hardest During A Marathon?
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