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Heather’s note: When it comes to running, there’s a lot of straight forward, proven science behind training methods. But when it comes to the mind games we all must play, specifically during ultrarunning, what works for one athlete may not work for another. Personally, I find it fascinating to hear what tricks and techniques others reach for when things get tough. In this post, fellow ultra-runner and UESCA certified running coach Thomas Watson presents his 6 mental strategies to help you through your next ultramarathon.
They say that ‘life is a marathon, not a sprint’ to convey that great things need a lot of patience and effort . . . but whoever coined the phrase clearly never heard of ultramarathons.
An ultramarathon is any footrace longer than a typical marathon distance of 26.2 miles; whether it’s 50km or 100 miles, an ultramarathon is around the distance that people tell you “wow, I don’t usually drive that far.”
If marathons are about grit and effort, ultramarathons = marathons squared – they are where things start to get weird.
Running for endless hours is as much a mental game as a physical one – you go on a journey of emotions in every ultra, ranging from despair and wanting to quit, to life-affirming euphoria.
And while your ultramarathon training is essential, a lot of your performance on the day comes down to what’s going on in your head.
6 Mental Strategies for Ultramarathon Running:
With that in mind, here’s my 6 top mental strategies for busting your next ultra:
1.Assume It’s Going To Be Tough (Be Humble)
Low expectations are a huge benefit to an ultra-runner.
If you assume that the race is going to be tough, that you’re going to experience pain, discomfort, setbacks – and that you might not even finish – then you’re well-prepared for the challenges ahead.
If you turn up at the start line of an ultra underprepared and think you can probably wing it…you’re much more likely to suffer.
Prepare yourself for pain, and when it comes you’ll invite it in rather than resist it. You’ll realise it’s a necessary part of the journey, and be able to push through it and come out the other side – rather than wallow in negative thoughts.
2. Just Focus On The Next Aid Station
Ultramarathons are super-long, naturally. When you’re running a shorter distance like a half marathon, it’s easier to focus on the finish line as a tangible goal. But when you’re three hours into an ultra and have another nine to go, it’s hard – and discouraging – to try and focus on the end point. The distance you have to cover to get there is just incomprehensible at times.
So instead of focusing on the finish line, just take it aid station to aid station.
Make it your goal to reach the next aid station; don’t worry about what happens after that. This way, you’re breaking your ultra into bite-sized, manageable chunks – which are a bit easier to digest mentally.
3. Keep a Strict Fuelling and Hydration Schedule
Having a fuelling and hydration timetable mapped out helps keep your performance consistent, as well as giving your brain something to focus on. (Here’s our fuelling guide for running an ultra).
Whatever strategy you decide on, make sure it’s simple to remember and doesn’t rely on mental gymnastics to calculate what you should be consuming. After a few hours on the trails, it’s amazing how your mental faculties shift and suddenly doing simple computations (or even remembering how far into the race you are) is hard work.
For example, my go-to ultramarathon strategy is to take one energy gel every hour on the hour, and gradually sip around 500ml of water over an hour.
If the aid stations in your race are regularly-spaced (i.e. every 10k) then you can also plan your fueling and hydration around them. For example, take a snack at each aid station.
Keep it simple, allow for contingency, and don’t be too rigid – in the latter stages, you’re likely to benefit from a couple of extra gels thrown into the mix.
4. Check Your RPE, Not Your Speed
RPE stands for Rate of Perceived Exertion, and when it comes to ultrarunning it’s probably the best metric you can focus on.
In shorter distance races, it’s common for runners to focus on metrics like pace or heart rate to guide their effort…but these don’t work so well in ultras.
During an ultramarathon, your heart rate can ‘drift’ after a few hours – meaning it doesn’t correlate with your overall exertion, so the usual Heart Rate Zones don’t apply.
And trying to stick to a predetermined pace in an ultra is a recipe for potential disaster. Ultras usually take place on trails, where the terrain, gradients, and overall conditions affect your pace much more than in a road race.
And naturally, your pace is likely to falter in the latter stages.
There’s little telling how you’re going to hold up after hours of running – if there’s one thing that is consistent about ultra-running, it’s that every race is different.
That’s why you should focus on your Rate of Perceived Exertion; it’s a scale from 1 to 10 in which you estimate how hard it feels like you’re pushing yourself (1 being a minimal effort like walking around your house, 10 being a flat-out sprint). For non-elite ultra-runners, I tell them that if you’re going beyond a 6 out of 10, you’re pushing too hard. Stick to 5 or 6 out of 10 for perceived effort – this usually corresponds to running at a conversational pace – i.e. a speed at which you could comfortably maintain a conversation.
5. Don’t Tune Out of The Race
In my first-ever 100k, I was so daunted by the scale of the event that I prepared everything I could to tune out of the event. I loaded up with podcasts and audiobooks, thinking (incorrectly) that the best way to get through the event was to distract myself and try not to think about what I was doing.
The truth is that this strategy just didn’t work – I got extremely bored, and realised that trying to avoid the race was a mistake. I took out my earphones and started to lean in to the run – I listened to my body, I took in the trails and scenery around me, and my head filled with thoughts about my race strategy and being present.
When you’re in an ultramarathon, lean into it; don’t try and tune it out with audiobooks or podcasts. Become present in the event.
And if you’re planning to listen to something, I recommend saving it for the last 25% or so of the run, when your body is aching and you welcome something to motivate you.
6. Underestimate Your Performance
A neat mental trick I prescribe to many ultrarunners I work with is to overestimate how long the race is going to take you; this way you get a small mental boost every time you realise you’re beating your plan.
This works best when working from aid station to aid station. Let’s say the aid stations are 10km apart, and you are confident you’ll cover that distance in 60 minutes. Then in your mental projection, tell yourself you’ll likely take around 70 minutes to complete it. That way, assuming you stick to your pace you’ll arrive early and feel good – and if you do take longer, you’ll be less disappointed.
It’s a small mental gain, but it adds up over time during an ultra!
Thomas Watson is an ultra-runner and UESCA-certified running coach. His passion is multi-day ultramarathons. He likes running in weird places and good beer, and writes at MarathonHandbook.com.