Visualisation probably doesn’t get as much consideration in ultra running as it deserves. If you consider your training for an event, I’m willing to say that probably around 90% of your focus is likely to be on the physical side of training. Making sure you’re in peak condition for the big day. And, that’s a natural expectation too. The remaining 10% is likely focused on nutrition and perhaps some mental preparation.
But what do we mean when we say ‘the mental side of training’? It’s something we’ve touched upon before. But often, that mental component is focused on a physical act i.e. being tough. Repeating certain routines in training that prepare you for the inevitable tough times.
However, there’s a subset of mental training that I want to focus on, where the pre requisite is not physical. And that’s race visualisation.
Visualisation techniques are something I used to employ hugely when I played rugby. Back in the day, I used to play a pretty good standard of rugby union. As a flanker, and with any position on the pitch, there are a number of aspects to the game where you have specific roles. Ahead of each game, I’d visualise different components / breakdowns of the match. I’d replay different scenarios, asking myself ‘what is my role here?’, ‘what decisions would I make?’ and ‘what if the opposing player did this?’
While in the throes of the real game, I never paused to think back to visions of myself going through the scenarios, (simply because of the pace of the game and being in the moment). I do believe that subconsciously, visualising the different situations played a big role in my own decision-making on the field i.e. making the right calls at the right time.
Visualisation is something I use in races too. And the beauty of using it in ultras, is the time you have to actually think about what you’re doing and how you envisaged the scenario playing out. I personally use it two-fold. First for race strategy, second for what happens when certain situations arise.
Visualisation for race strategy
In this example, I’ll use the upcoming Six Foot Track marathon as an example. The race is very conveniently split into a number of quite different sections, and this could be the case for any race you choose. The important thing is to understand is how you’re going to approach each section of the race.
Personally, I break races down into 3-4 large chunks, but within each of those chunks are a subset of ‘chunks’ too. So, with Six Foot track for example, there are three main ‘chunks’:
- The first 15km of fast downhill: Broken down into 2km of downhill stairs, 5kms of fast fire road and 7kms downhill, but winding single track
- 10kms of climbing: Broken down into 3.5kms of 10% climbing, 1km of rolling but mainly fast downhill, 1km of steep 15% climbing, 1km of rolling but mainly fast downhill and then 3.5kms of 10% climbing
- 20kms of rolling hills: Broken down into 8km of undulating fire trail, 4kms of undulating but fast fire trail, 6kms of fast single track and 2kms of hard technical steep downhill
When breaking down each large chunk of the race, I visualise myself running each section. Looking at where my feet will go, thinking of any specific points on the track I need to be aware of e.g. technical trail and how I’ll approach it. Finally I’ll place a number / time on that section.
I also think about how I’m going to feel at each of the different points of the race. For example, the first 15kms is all about going hard and fast downhill. I think about the pace I’ll be running. And then in the actual race, I think back to that visualisation and consider ‘Am I going to quick?’ ‘How does my body feel about running this pace?’ ‘Should I be worried? Or should I continue?’
Towards the back-end of the race in the last 20kms I also like to think about being ‘uncomfortably comfortable’ too. The best way to describe this is running at a pace that hurts, but you know is sustainable. I think about what that feels like and accept that I know it’s going to hurt somewhat. But in thinking about it, prepares me for it on race day. It’s also a mental check for me to not get overly lazy in the final stages of the race. Knowing that I’m pushing for a specific time, acting as the wake-up call I need to keep pushing.
This may all sound overly complicated. And, I hear you cry, what if I can’t train on or know the course prior to the event? Sure, that makes things more challenging, but you can still do all of the above with the variety of information that exists about each race. There’s elevation charts, Strava files and race reports in abundance these days. You can get to know the course still without actually being on the course. It simply takes a degree of flexibility in the approach.
Visualisation for specific scenarios
This was touched upon briefly above, but one of the biggest reasons many people drop from ultras over and above GI issues, is the inability to deal with the shit hitting the proverbial fan. It’s almost as guaranteed as the sun rising, but shit gets real in ultras. We all have mental downs and the more you have them and deal with them, the better you become at handling them. Don’t get me wrong, they’re still hard to deal with, you just become better at handling them. I’ve had my fair share in the past and not dealt with them. But if you visualise them prior to a race and consider how you overcome them, it’ll go a long way towards getting you past them too.
The classic issue I see cropping up time and time again is one of thinking too far ahead in a race. You’re 40kms into a 100km event and the fatigue starts to settle in. You pause and consider the fact that you have 60 bloody kms to go. Soul destroying. The technique I use again centres on visualisation and then drawing upon this in a race situation.
I had a recent experience at the GNW 100 miler last year, 60kms into the race, having just climbed the dreaded hill past CP2. I was nauseous and thinking about the 115kms I had to go. But, because I’d visualised this moment in my head prior to the race, I overcame it within 15 minutes. So what did I do before the race that helped me get through things in the race?
The first thing to do is accept the situation. Yep, you’re going down a hole and it ain’t fun. Ultras are not all smiles and high fives that you see on social media. Sometimes they’re really fucking shit. So accept your current state. There’s no shame in hating things right here right now.
But then refocus back to the goal. What did you come here to achieve? How are you going to feel if you don’t complete this race? Are you really, really suffering? Or is it for the most part, your mind telling you this is shit? I also like to focus on something that snaps me out of thinking ahead too much. Something that grabs you back into the moment. At this juncture, I focus on my breathing. In that, I tell myself to breathe in and then out. And to really focus on each breath as if my life depended upon it. Within 15 minutes, for the most part, the negativity has washed away. I was able to draw upon the visualisation of what I told myself to do, apply it in the race and continue along my merry way.
Visualise the end result
This is just one example of the many issues that arise in an ultra. The important thing to do, and what I would recommend is to write down all the different things that could occur during and ultras and consider how you’re going to overcome each of them. Run through each in your head. If it helps, visualise yourself in the race or on the trail somewhere. Run through the checklist in your head and see yourself coming out at the other end, smiling and successful. That’s important. Visualise the success and the end result. See yourself running across the line. Because if you can’t see yourself finishing the race, it’s unlikely you will finish. It goes a long way towards building confidence if you imagine what that finish looks and FEELs like.