90% Mental : 5 Strategies for Surviving the Tough Times

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.

It’s not all smiles! Digging deep 60 miles into the Lakeland 100.


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 outΒ 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.

Part of my motivation…


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.

5. Smile

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.

Positive interaction with fellow runners can really lift your mood


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!

Feeling invincible, or just completely losing the plot?



27 thoughts on “90% Mental : 5 Strategies for Surviving the Tough Times

  1. A great list Lizzie.
    Something I stole from Chrissie Wellington for my first 100 to aid point 1 is to break the race down before you start as suggested, it could be checkpoints, 5 miles blocks or something completely arbitrary, but for each section, dedicate it to somebody or a group and think about them on that bit.
    It’s all distraction.


    1. Thank you. Oh yes, I think I read about that in her book, but had forgotten. That is a great idea – and as you say, anything that helps with distraction and focussing on the positives is worth trying!


  2. Great tips! Half marathons are the furthest I’ve run, but I do long distance hiking and the alphabet game is a favourite to pass the time – trying to find things around you that start with every letter of the alphabet πŸ™‚


  3. Hats off to you ultra guys and girls. I walked the Peddars way at the weekend (46 miles) 30 miles on day one broke us, the remaining segment on Sunday was literally taking one step at a time – I have horrific blisters. πŸ˜”
    Near the end we worked out the official end was equidistant to a nearby pub, so we walked there instead. Same mileage, much more fun. πŸ˜‚


      1. Honestly, no. You’ve hit the nail on the head. It’s really boring. I did the Norfolk coastal marathon a few years ago, now that is stunning and they’ve recently extended the route. I feel that may be a challenge brewing for next year….

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Ha – love the tactic of making up a blog whilst running! That’s how I got through my train journey home after Saturday’s event. Surprising how motivating it is πŸ‘


  5. Have been loving your blog Lizzie! But now thrilled to realise, after seeing your second to last photo, that you were the awesome navigator that my partner Neil was grouped with on the Fellsman!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes! For some reason I thought it was a good idea to meet you at the checkpoints in the cold! Even more stupidly, I completed it myself the following year as you made it look such fun!

        Liked by 1 person

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