How can you build men­tal strength?

Per­form­ing to ones 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 start­ing 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, to 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.

How can you build mental strength for ultras? Ultra X
 

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 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 by incor­por­at­ing these in a train­ing plan will pre­pare you for race day.

A pre­vi­ous top Brit 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 250 km in one go at the begin­ning of their train­ing it would have been impossible to get there. Instead, it’s import­ant to get 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. 

 

How can you build mental strength for ultras? Ultra X

Pre­pare for the lows

Even the pro’s 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 visu­al­iz­a­tion 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.

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