No one denies that being mentally strong is a prerequisite for doing well in trail and ultra races — but how many people actually spend time developing mental toughness? Most people think that physical training itself will improve their mental strength. While to a certain degree this is true, as our bodies learn to cope with the intensity of the required training, there are a number of specific techniques we can use to become mentally stronger on race day.
Dealing with Pain
The pain we experience in our legs when running is different from the pain we experience when, say, we fall over and cut our knee. Yet often we label the effect of both experiences with the word pain. The feeling we have in working muscles is a result of us working hard toward a desired outcome, unlike the damage done to our knee when we cut it, which is not something that we intended. Labelling an outcome we desire with a negative word like pain doesn’t help us push harder to increase that feeling. No doubt, intensifying the feeling of pain is something you have tried to avoid your whole life. However, relabeling the sense of pain in a more positive way will allow you to deal with that burning sensation in your legs far better.
So next time you do a hard training run and your legs are burning, instead of associating that with negativity, treat it as a positive feeling. Realize that the more your legs burn the better the effect of the training. So the sensation of your legs burning is an outcome you desire and want as much of as possible. Relish the feeling in your legs as a sign your training is effective instead of treating it as something to be avoided.
Perception of Effort
In a race when we run through checkpoints, or run past friends and family, we almost always feel better. The applause and encouragement we receive lifts us above the fatigue and for a short moment it all feels much easier. But as soon as we run back out onto the trails that feeling evaporates and we are left with fatigued legs again. When we run through the crowds our perception of effort decreases, but when we are again alone on the trails the perception of effort goes right back up.
One solution to this is to visualise your closest friends and family by the side of the trail cheering you on. Visualisation is a powerful tool that almost all elite athletes use in one way or another. It is also something that needs to be practised. The better you are, the more powerful your physical body’s response to the mental visualisations will be. You need to practise this in training until it becomes easier for you to conjure up an adoring support crew cheering you on. Come race day, anytime you start to struggle, you can bring up your imaginary support crew to help get you through the tough times.
Staying in the Moment
When we think too far ahead in a race the mind can falter, especially as fatigue sets in. When the mind falters the body falters. If we can learn to stay in the present moment the perceived effort becomes a lot easier. Thinking about how far there is to go isn’t helpful (unless the finish line is in sight!), but breaking it down one step at a time is far more manageable. Staying in the moment isn’t easy and takes practise. There are many techniques you can use and it’s a matter of finding what works for you. Focusing on your breath, counting to 10, reciting a mantra, and focusing on the rhythm of your feet hitting the ground are all useful techniques which will help you stay in the present.
The Effect of Motivation
The higher your motivation levels the more physical discomfort you are prepared to endure. Therefore, the more challenging the goal, the more motivation required. If you set yourself a goal of say 5h to finish an event, think about why that is important to you. If you ran the distance in 5h and 5min, would you still be happy? You need to really think about what your goals are for a race and why they are such. Research has shown that higher levels of motivation can increase performance. So when your legs start to fatigue and you realise you have to push even harder to break that 5h mark, you are going to need that high level of motivation to achieve your objective.
Practice Makes Perfect
These techniques need to be practised repeatedly in training so that come race day they are easy to perform even under extreme fatigue. Increasing your mental strength can help you tap into a physical potential that so far your brain hasn’t allowed you to use.
Article by Andy DuBois
Andy is an award-winning personal trainer and elite endurance athlete specializing in ultra running. You can find more useful info on his ultra running coach website (www.mile27.com.au).