Achieving mental excellence in ultra marathons

Andorra Ultra Trail Vallnord

Most athletes head into an event, race or course in peak physical condition, however many will overlook  mental excellence. You can have the best fitness in the world, but fail to prepare yourself mentally and you might never perform to your full potential.

These events suck, they are hard, and they ask a lot from us physically, but especially mentally. How you approach things when the going gets tough and you’re absolutely hanging out often makes or breaks your performance.

Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do, excellence, then, is not an act but a habit”, something I’m sure you have heard before, but how many actually practice being excellent in training? If you don’t, how are you going to learn how to optimise performance when it matters.

Practice shit; perform shit, simple as that.

You must prepare for the inevitable, rough patches that will occur when your aptitude is tested and I MEAN TESTED.

There are literally hundreds of different techniques as to how to deal with the inevitable rough times ahead during such events. Here are a few I rely upon successfully.


When your concentration shifts from the task in hand to how you are feeling right now, here is a technique for situations such as this to shift focus back to something constructive.

Simply take this opportunity to do a navigation check. You could do any similar task, but these sorts of spot checks will shift focus away from the suffering.

Remind yourself as to why you are doing this in the first place is important, and a quick and easy spot check in this situation could be something as simple as a keyword, like ‘stop’ or ‘think’. I used to wear an elastic band around my wrist and I would simply ping myself, snapping myself back to reality.

When you’re in the shit, in that tough place.

There really is only you who can encourage yourself, and how you do that will depend on your personality. Some (myself included), use positive phrases (mantras) while others will just remind themselves of the purpose of the mission (participation in the event/race/course etc.).

The most important thing to remember is that negative feelings or emotions are temporary and I mean temporary. In fact eight seconds is total time your brain experiences a single negative thought or emotion. But the problem occurs when people are unable to recognise this and begin the cycle of negative thoughts about the negative thoughts and on and on etc…

Think of this as your primeval brain (chimp or fear dog… there are many names) keeping you safe and out of danger. This is holding you back unless you can manage it. Try to remember the eight second rule and do whatever you can to shift focus away from these thoughts to prevent the negative spiral. Note this true for life in general.

Be present, now is now, last time was last time end of..

Chunks and prizes

No not some crazy ass game show! Allow me to explain. Break the problem up into small chunks miles, hills or anything really but break things up even more when your suffering. Just as important, and the bit most people forget is to give yourself a prize when you hit that target. “I’ve just done another mile/km, yet 10 min ago I was going to bin it” or “ that mile was faster than the last, awesome good job”

We are what we repeatedly do, therefore excellence is an act not a habit. To stay the course you must be unrelenting in your pursuit of excellence.

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Mac McKie
Leeds UK based Sports Performance, Strength and Conditioning and Online coach. Owner and head coach at . After serving with the British Army I gained a degree in sports performance through Teesside University and have been able to continue my passion for endurance sports, in particular ultra marathons and coaching athletes along their endurance endeavours.

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