Much has been written on the topic of mental training for ultras – indeed, we’ve drafted a few articles that look at this very important, but somewhat overlooked aspect to our beloved sport. If you look at life in general, as a species we’re not great at training the mind and keeping it mind fresh and invigorated. I also suspect that it’s probably the most dominant reason for people not finishing an ultra. The mind can play some nasty tricks on you while you’re running, telling you that you don’t feel good or that it’s pointless carrying on. I speak from personal experience here, but thankfully it’s something I’ve learnt from and will continue to learn from too – the mind is a fascinating subject.
While many people seem to train for the physical side of running an ultra, the mental aspect of training can be overlooked to some extent. It’s not until a few weeks prior that we begin to contemplate the toughness we need to encounter as we embark on our mammoth runs. The truth is that you can do a whole host more before the final week or two of your race day, so we asked Mile 27’s Andy DuBois to give us his top tips for getting your mind ready for your chosen big race:
#1 The hurt locker
This applies not only to when you train, but life in general – you need tough experiences so that on race day you remember them and learn how to deal with them. If your training is all ‘easy runs’, you’re going to find it very hard to deal with the challenges that race day can throw up to you. In training it can be very easy to plan a 50km run, but only end up doing 30kms because you started to get tired and you had a bailout option… If you mean to do 50km, do 50km. Don’t give yourself a bailout option in the first place. You need to understand how the body copes when you enter the ‘dark zone’ and demons in your head when they try to talk you out of carrying on.
The same goes with interval work. How many times have you set out to do 12 x 400s, but cut it short because it was all getting a little too hard? The going might be tough, but trying to find something positive to focus on helps give you the skills to do the same when the going gets really tough in a race. Even if you’re 12 weeks out from a race, set yourself some challenging goals in training and stick to them, go to a place that you know will test you mentally and stay in the present. If you’re doing 20 x 400m interval reps, focus on each rep, not the 13 more you have to do. While the training is physically challenging, the mental achievement of some of the more challenging sessions will reap even greater benefits.
There is also only so much that you can control in a race, so there is no point getting stressed or worried over what you can’t control. Many a runner’s race has finished because of some unfortunate incident, such as markings being taken down leading to getting lost or going the wrong way. What we have to do is accept what has happened, but more importantly deal with it. One thing you have absolute control over is your mind. How you deal with what the race throws up at you is 100% up to you. Some will get frustrated, some will be disappointed and some will spit the dummy, but another person who experiences the same conditions will find a way to stay positive and get to the finish line.
Once again, while it’s hard to replicate some of this in training, there are things you can do that will help prepare you for these types of incidents that invariably happen on race day. While we’re not advocating heading out into the bush and getting lost, get together with a group of running mates and chat through some of the different types of scenarios that could pop up and how each of you would deal with them. A problem shared is a problem solved as they say.
As you start to wind down the training volume, you start to find you have extra time on your hands in the week or two before the race. During your taper you should begin to visualise all the different aspects of the race. Focus on the different sections that you’ll run through and work out your approach. It seems a little crazy, but imagine yourself running fast and smoothly through those trails. Imagine the good bits, but, also think of when the times might not be so good. For example those last 30 miles of a 100 miler is when the going really gets tough. They’re make or break for most people. Some go on to run consistently well, for others it falls apart. Work out how you’re going to feel at various stages of the race and how you will deal with any problems that arise. Visualise that if you know your legs will get tired at mile 70, how will you respond?
My philosophy comes from the great German cyclist, Jens Voigt, whose motto is ‘shut up legs’. He physically tells his legs to be quiet – a simple act of mind over matter – deal with them when the race ends and block it out until then. Through sheer coincidence, Jens was number 168 in this year’s Tour de France – we like that – a lot 🙂
#4 Dig Deep
Before any race remind yourself of why the race is important, why does it matter if you finish the race in less than 14 hours? Who cares if you did 14.20? If you can’t find a very good reason why, then come race day when things get hard, you won’t have the motivation to dig that little bit deeper to break 14 hours (for example). Dig deep in your mind for why it’s important and call upon that during the race. For example, it could be that silver buckle at TNF100 in Australia that motivates you. It could simply be a goal that you set yourself and told all of your friends about, giving you greater accountability towards achieving that goal.
If you’re simply not bothered then that’s fine too. Many people enter races simply to experience the atmosphere on race day, but deep down we all have a bit of ego and motivation to want to do well, if not against others then against ourselves. Work out what your motivation is and keep that front of mind not just for race day, but throughout your training too. If you have a sub 10 100km goal, remind yourself of that through your training. When the going gets tough in training, keep reminding yourself of your goal and ask if the effort you’re putting into your training is worthy of the goal you’ve set yourself.
Feature Image Credit: Sophie Brown – runners preparing for the Buffalo Stampede