Ultrarunners often like to quote the joke of Canadian runner Ray Zahab that “90% of ultrarunning is mental, and the rest is in your head.” Clearly you are going to struggle to complete an ultramarathon or marathon without also giving suitable respect to the physical aspects of your training; however, it is also crucial to pay attention to your mental preparation and prepare your mind as well as your body.
Once you are running longer distances, it is rare to sail through a race without any bad patches; how you deal with these will ultimately determine the outcome and successful completion of your race.
Here are 5 mental strategies to help get you through those bad times:
1. Break it down
Marathons and ultras are a long way and it is easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the challenge. In my first 100 mile race, I saw somebody pull out after only 20 miles, simply because the idea of running 100 miles became overwhelming.
Instead of thinking about the challenge as a whole, break it down into smaller sections and focus only on reaching the next checkpoint or next significant landmark. Once you get tired to the point where you are struggling to run, make these sections even smaller; focus on running to the next tree or bridge, or on running until you catch the person ahead. Think about running with good form. If you have to walk, then walk like a long distance walker, not like a tired runner. Concentrate on doing the best you can in that moment and the bigger picture will take care of itself.
2. Be a Problem Solver
When you are running long distances, there is plenty of time for things to go wrong and for small irritations to develop into race-ending problems. That bit of grit in your shoe could rub a painful blister if left; forgetting to top up your water bottles could leave you badly dehydrated in 10 miles’ time. However, don’t allow yourself to get mired down in the negativity of things going wrong. Before all my big races I write a quotation on my water bottle from one of my heroes, Polar explorer Ernest Shackleton:
Difficulties are just things to overcome after all.
Things will not always go according to plan (although thankfully becoming stranded in Antarctic pack ice is unlikely to be a problem); the key to success is good decision making when they do go wrong. Be alert to potential issues and deal with them immediately, rather than allowing them to develop into a bigger problem. Are you struggling because you need to eat more, drink more, or change your socks? Control the areas that you can control and don’t worry about the rest!
3. Be Distracted
Sometimes your mind needs a bit of a break and it can help to just think about something other than running. Plus, filling your mind with other thoughts makes it difficult for your brain to obsess in quite such detail about how much it hurts or how slowly you are going…
Different tactics I use to while away the miles include:
- Rhyming or word association games: if I run past a tree, then bee, knee, free, etc.
- Counting to 100
- Thinking about the history of places or people who might have lived there
- Making up blog, Facebook or Twitter posts about how awesomely amazing the whole experience is…
4. Know Your Motivation
At some point during your race you are likely to question why you are putting yourself through all this pain. Make sure you have figured out the answer to this before the race, as it is unlikely you will have the mental agility to do so while you are running.
When it gets tough, think about why you wanted to do it; how fantastic you will feel when you’ve finished; all those hours you sacrificed away from your family to train; the money you are raising for charity; or whatever other personal motivations you had when you first decided to take on this challenge. Keeping them at the forefront of your mind will help to override the negative thoughts. If you can shape this into a mantra to repeat to yourself, then this will make it even easier to focus on your motivation during the race.
Above all else, force yourself to smile. I defy anyone to be able to remain in a negative frame of mind when they are smiling; where the body leads, the mind will follow. In addition, smiling will encourage more positive interaction from your fellow runners, marshals and spectators, which will support you further.
And finally, remember that in long distance running, good and bad spells come and go. While you may be feeling amazing one minute and have totally run out of steam a moment later, similarly the bad patch is not necessarily here to stay. Keep plugging away and focus on solving the issues and a mile or so down the road you may well be flying along feeling invincible once more!