How Can You Build Mental Strength For Ultra Marathons?

Written By Sam Heward

Sam is one of the Ultra X Co-Founders. If he's not actually out running, chances are he's busy writing about it (or plotting Ultra X strategy!)

19 February 2019

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Performing to one’s best in a multi-day race relies on much more than physical ability. The most successful competitors at Ultra X events are not the quickest, but those who are able to keep on going when the chips are down.

Every single person standing at the start line on day one will inevitably have peaks and troughs over the week, but what differentiates those who do well is their mental attitude and ability to deal with the lows.

A huge amount of DNFs at ultras don’t come from an unbearable source of pain, or indeed injury, rather they come from within the runner, slowly talking themselves out of the race.

Training plans which get you ready physically are one thing, but how can you go about preparing mentally?

What is mental strength?

The notion of mental toughness is not clearly defined but put simply: being mentally tough is about how we respond to feeling uncomfortable. There are a number of factors that contribute to mental toughness. However, at the core there are two key features: willingness (ability to endure) and optimism (positive belief about future outcome).

Willingness is important to stay in the experience without giving up, and optimism helps bridge the gap between what we are doing and achieving our goals. Combined, these will get you up after collapsing into that chair at checkpoint four and ensure you stay motivated because you know that the finish line is within sight.

Male Runner Staring Into Distance at Ultra X Jordan

How can you build it?

Stay on track

Treat mental toughness as a skill which can be learnt.

An ideal training plan will have a range of workouts. Harder days are designed to build you physiologically but they also provide an opportunity to work on developing a mental toughness that you will then be able to access later. Whilst finishing nine hill sprints may have great physiological benefits, if you were supposed to do ten what has the effect been on your mental strength?

To develop mental toughness you have to be ready to simulate difficult situations that are going to test you and in so doing there will be a certain amount of physical and mental suffering. Understand that incorporating these into a training plan will prepare you for race day.

A previous top British runner in the Marathon des Sables had a mantra which he would repeat to himself when training. When it was getting tough he would say to himself: “Of course its tough, you are training for the bloody Marathon des Sables, it’s should be tough”. By embracing being uncomfortable, being uncomfortable will become easier.

Connect to your why

To stay motivated you need to know the reasons for your challenge. Knowing why you are in the desert, rainforest, or on a mountain will help you when there are questions over whether you can carry on. Even if it is as simple as not wanting to go back home having not made the finish line, this can become an anchor for keeping going when the race gets hard.

Make process the goal

There are a lot of Ultra X finishers who have never run further than a marathon before signing up. If they had thought about running 250km in one go at the beginning of their training it would have been impossible to get there. Instead, it’s important to enjoy the day-to-day training and have faith that by putting one step in front of the other you will get to the finish line.

By knowing that everyone is capable of finishing and that achieving the end goal is just a matter of procedure, the focus gets taken away from the eventual challenge and placed on the present. It is not by chance that British star Tom Evans’ motto is “Process not outcome”. By concentrating on each individual training session and getting it done to the best of your ability, you can relax on race day knowing that you have done the work.

Prepare for the lows

Even pro athletes DNF and there is no such thing as a perfect race. As such, learning not to overreact to the ups and downs of training is essential. By viewing failure as an opportunity to grow and improve, not a reason to give up, we reposition what it means. Complications and complete failures are all part of the landscape. Mitigate the damage, learn the lessons that will help you in the future, and move on.

If change is truly the only constant, then flexibility and adaptability are among the most important traits you can develop.

In multi-day events there are variables which are going to be out of your control. By knowing that this is normal you can concentrate on controlling as much as you can – things like kit, shoes, and nutrition choices.

Athletes often speak about positive visualisation for events, but things are going to go wrong in a multi-day race. Everyone gets stomach issues, blisters and niggles. In addition to thinking about succeeding it is worth thinking about what you are going to do when things go wrong, so that when they do, you are ready.

Stay positive

Finally and perhaps most importantly, stay positive! By signing down for an Ultra X or any ultramarathon you are taking on an epic and exciting challenge that few will be embark on. Enjoy it and remember that the stories will last far longer than any physical pain.

Man in Ultra X Cap

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