Getting Mentally ‘Tougher’ With Specificity

Shortly, the Ultra168 empire (yeah right!), will expand further when we publish our first book! In conjunction with Salomon runner, Majell Backhausen, we’ve written an ebook focused on how you build up the physical and mental toughness to perform at your best in an ultra with some highly specific sessions.

While the act of running is in itself beneficial for the physical challenges that lie ahead in an ultra, it’s often the mental ones that see us come unstuck. But the beauty is that many of the sessions you perform day in, day out, can with a little adjustment, be used to gather significant mental strength too.

Think of it as you as a bit of an insider’s view into how you can really make the most of your talents to get the best results you can for your racing. To get the taste buds going, we’re publishing a little extract from the first chapter of the book, entitled ‘Getting Into Rhythm.’ We’re currently in editing mode and hope to have the finished article so to speak, ready in a few weeks.


Physical growth and positive adaptation are the most commonly referred to benefits from harder training sessions. This is provided you allow your body to recovery and repair. But there are also huge mental gains you can take from these sessions, so long as you acknowledge what specific mental toughness you are working on, respecting it as much as the physical growth.

During events and races, mental toughness plays a huge role in your overall success and enjoyment. In fact, mental toughness is more often than not, the reason behind success when compared to a runner’s physical attributes.

Training your mental toughness simultaneously with your physical strength makes your sessions twice as effective. We will now explore a specific session you can incorporate into your harder training phase. This is for your harder days and the aim is to apply physical and mental stress during the session. Recovery will be needed after these days, in the form of self-acknowledgement, rest, active recovery, good sleep, nutrition and hydration. These are all in an effort to get you standing on a start line with bulletproof legs and a mind of steel.

Getting into the rhythm – moving forward on changing terrain

Transitioning from a steep climb or staircase to a flat section of fire road can sometimes be an unwelcome sight and a missed opportunity for many runners. Why? Normally we feel very uncomfortable in these section of a race as we transition between our running rhythm. It’s like a change in songs on a dance floor, it can be just plain awkward if your transition isn’t smooth. We mentioned a missed opportunity and by this, we’re referring to the opportunity of moving faster on more favourable terrain.

If your transition between rhythms is not swift from a forced slower hike to a quicker run, then you lose time and an opportunity to progress quicker, thus finishing faster and improving your race time. The session we want to focus on, to help improve your transition between rhythms is quite simple.

Ask yourself ‘what will the race terrain ask from me?’ then simulate it in training. Race directors will usually have a few curve ball sections in a race, they get some sort of kick out of watching people struggle 🙂

These are the challenges we get faced with a lot, in trail running, so these are the challenges we must train to overcome. So if you view them negatively, we want to change that and be more accepting of our ability to tackle these sections. From now on, let’s view these sections as opportunities for a change in stride allowing certain muscles to rest while others take the load and an opportunity to be more efficient in our event.

Running stairs can be a great way to replace hills
Running stairs can be a great way to replace hills

As an example, take a steep stair climb followed by a section of flat runnable fire road. It could also be reversed to a steep technical downhill (one with arms and legs going everywhere), followed by a runnable section of road. We don’t need to invent a whole new session here, but we can be innovative with an existing session – Hill repeats.

The physical changes of this session include an addition 400 meter of swift but relaxed running immediately after you crest the hill. Practice the transition, increase you stride length as the terrain becomes flat, hold your good cadence from the hill- run purposefully and relaxed. Do not stop to rest or take a breath – keep moving forward, turning your feet over and run.

Mentally, work through each section of the repetition and be ready to execute. Talk yourself through each stage and become comfortable with the repetition requirements – Breathe, start the hill climb, move with a shorter stride length and good cadence, work through the hill, getting closer to completing the hill, mentally prepare to up the pace and keep surging forward and relax. As you feel the ground become increasingly level, move become more upright in posture and increase stride length, breathe, turn the feet over and transition into your normal running form, holding a good cadence (aim for 170-180 foot strikes per minute).

Mental preparation is a huge part of having a successful race. If you lose focus, you could lose hours.
Mental preparation is a huge part of having a successful race. If you lose focus, you could lose hours.

Continue this for 400 meters (200m out and back) or until you have found that flow and forgotten the hill rep. Then easily return to the bottom of the hill and repeat. The same can be done for downhill sections, find composure as you finish the hill, use your momentum and transition back to efficient running form, breathe and find the flow again. Mentally work through the process and be comfortable with the requirements of the section.

The mental attitude towards this session will have a huge factor in the session’s success and the adaptations you gain. The mental benefits of this are big! As mentioned before, these sections are now an opportunity for a ‘break’. You can stop slogging up a hill and get in a nice run, or visa versa. It is a positive attitude towards your challenge ahead.

You may as well be as positive as possible about the obstacles of the event because like it or not, they’re there and you will have to tackle them if you want to achieve the end goal of finishing or performing better in races.

When race days comes, you will be ready for every single up, followed by flat, followed by down, repeated. Not to mention looking a whole lot less awkward as you pass runners who have not mastered the swift and smooth transition.

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I'm a mediocre runner who can bat above his average when I train hard. A man of extremes, I do enjoy everything life offers and consider it an absolute pleasure just to be able to put one foot in front of the other and let my mind wander somewhere different.

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