Mental training for ultra marathons

mental training

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Today we welcome the insights of Sydney-based coach, Tim Locke who discuss mental training for ultras. This gives you just a taster of the type of content that Insider Patreons of Ultra168 can access ahead of general release. 

Our modern lives are set up to make day-to-day living easy, relatively carefree and comfortable. We no longer have to hunt for food and shelter is more an idea of permanence, status, comfort, and style than an idea of protection or a place to rest between long journeys in the natural world. In short, our mental training takes a big hit.

The progression through the industrial revolution into the digital age has progressed society and culture in ways previously unimaginable, while at the same time stripping back our capacity to absorb discomfort, inconvenience, and challenge.

Take a look around next time you’re out and about. We take the escalators instead of the stairs, stand on the ‘travelator’ after a long haul flight, complain about overcrowding on the bus and train, avoid going outside because it’s too cold, too hot, or too wet. We as human beings have lost the innate connection between ourselves and the outside world that allowed us to develop, evolve and progress in the first place.

These creature comforts crossover through all parts of our life and even appear in our training cycle and subsequently our races and events. I would hazard a guess that the introduction of a chair and a heater has killed more race dreams than they’ve helped create during long trail events. The same can be said for missing sessions because of the weather or avoiding hard workouts because they instigate discomfort.

So how best do we tackle the idea of reclaiming our toughness, specifically with the goal of developing mental training for completing our chosen event?

Incorporate repetition into your training

Repetition helps in the development of habits. Repetition can be as simple as running distance or time repeats; 8 x 400m with 200m float, or 4 x 5 minutes hard, 5 minutes float.

Repetition can also present itself differently through sessions such as continuous loops around the same suburban block or oval, or uphill sessions on a small section of bush track to gain the maximum amount of elevation in a specified time.

These mental training sessions lack the vital elements of variety, diversity, and change that we often psychologically desire as runners, but on the contrary, go a long way in developing the mental strength required to perform strongly and efficiently on race day.

If you can handle seeing the same stretch of concrete over and over for an hour or more, the same tree roots and rocks, and turning around the same football field, then pushing forward through new terrain on race day presents itself as a reward, despite how challenging the process may be.

Repeat a session like this every few weeks to ignite the process and keep the process fresh in your mind. Too much of this may send you slightly bonkers and reduce your desire to train, so tread sparingly.

Incorporate reinforcement into your training

Reinforcement encourages the repetition of behaviour. The more we use reinforcement in our training when we repeat an activity, the more the activity and our response to the activity become automatic. Acknowledge your efforts during and after the session. Reinforce your intentions and desire after each rep, every lap, and every scramble uphill. When the session is complete allow yourself time to reflect and absorb your hard work. The more positive reinforcement you display, the more likely you are to develop the habit (training), and the stronger you become physically and mentally as a result.

Train in less than ideal weather

Much has been written about the 2018 Boston Marathon. Female winner Desiree Linden regularly trained in cold, wet conditions in Michigan, as did male winner, Yuki Kawauchi in his native Japan. Training in these conditions ensured that both athletes were prepared and ready to execute on race day, while many others succumbed to the conditions. Running in the rain is a childlike novelty, and also offers empty paths, parks, and trails to explore and make your own. In Australia we’re blessed with often great weather, so don’t ignore those odd less an ideal days for good mental training.

Don’t ignore the hard sessions

The hard sessions encourage growth and adaptation on both a physical and psychological level. Jump in with a group and learn and absorb from people who are stronger, faster, or more experienced than you.

Understand and accept that growth comes from hard sessions and tough periods during runs. Learn to embrace the process and rationalize the flow of thoughts. Do this by acknowledging truths in your training or race; “This is hurting because it is meant to hurt. Running for this long shouldn’t always feel great. This feels hard because it is hard. Running uphill isn’t easy.”

You can also manage this process by using relative terms;
“8km to the next aid station. That’s only 4 laps of my local block.”
“30 minutes until the finish. I can do anything for 30 minutes.”

Don’t give yourself any easy exits during long runs

You can do this by running a long loop with no other route choices, have someone drop you the desired distance from home and running back home, or run out for exactly half your time/distance and have no other option but to return back the same way. Sessions like these encourage you to engage with the process and strip things back.

Strategies like these are not all or nothing. Progressively introduce them the same way you would progressively introduce longer runs, harder workouts, or more volume. Find what works for you and mitigate against your weaknesses through consistency to develop your own mental training.

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Dan on Twitter
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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