Train Your Brain
How to address the mental challenges of an ultra, from training to racing
Photo by Fredrik Marmsater/courtesy of Page Street Publishing
Training for an ultra is hard. You have a training plan that maps out your miles and core training. You have gear to test, mentors to engage, books and online resources to devour. There are coaches, psychologists, loved ones and friends who can help you to see what you have deep down inside. Indeed, finishing an ultra is (arguably) 100-percent mental.
At various stages of training and racing, you will face doubt and uncertainty. Look at such challenges as opportunities to train your brain, and gain the mental strength that will see you to the finish line.
When you find yourself facing the following challenges, remember these tips to keep you on track.
1. STARTING YOUR TRAINING
Your thought: “I just can’t fit a workout in. I’m tired after work. There is too much on my plate.”
My advice: Acknowledge that starting any new endeavor is challenging. Making changes to our routine schedule is probably one of the most disruptive adjustments. This adjustment is testing your desire. Once you get through this adjustment (they say 21 days to “habit”), this will flow much easier.
Tips to find that flow:
- Before going to bed, plan your training block for the next day. Pack clothes, fuel, a watch and everything you will need.
- If scheduling is an issue, with family or work, double check that your plan works with their schedule.
2. BEGINNING THE THIRD WEEK OF A TOUGH BUILDING PHASE
Your thought: “I pushed hard in week two and there is still another big week ahead! Logging the miles scheduled is too daunting.”
My advice: Assess the possible contributing factors. Are you consistently getting enough sleep? Are you fueling well? Are you hitting your recovery windows? Is additional life stress distracting you from your training focus? Acknowledging the cause will help you process and get back to your training.
Tips for motivating:
- If life stress is the issue, utilize your running as your break; do not view your running as another stressor. There are not many issues in life a long run can’t solve. It’s just that sometimes the run needs to be a bit longer.
- If you are physically fatigued and on the verge of burnout, either move the schedule around to take an easy day or completely skip a workout. Knowing that you have the ability to manage your training will help with your motivation.
- If you are not sleeping well, check in on your training time and caffeine intake. As you increase your training load, especially if workouts are done later in the day, it can be difficult to sleep at night, so switch to running in the morning or early afternoon. Caffeine consumed later in the day can also impact your sleep patterns.
3. DEALING WITH AN INJURY
Your thought: I have consistent pain in my (fill in the blank). I feel like I can run through it, but I’m worried it will get worse.
My advice: This is a tricky scenario. Listening to your body and not your desire is the key to knowing when to run and when to rest.
When running, does the pain get worse? Does it hurt before and after, but not during? Does it only hurt during? Where exactly does it hurt? How does the pain present itself? Are there any other recurring painful points? Often injuries are caused in one part of the chain, but present in another. For example: IT Band Syndrome typically starts with weak and tight gluteus muscles, but presents as an ice pick stabbing the outside of your knee. Are there strengthening and stretching exercises you do that make it feel better?
Finally, enlist the advice of a professional (physical therapist, doctor, etc.) to aid your decision.
Your reality: Injury is serious, and you are unable to run.
My advice: It happens and it sucks at first. Focus on the big picture. There is more to your running goals than one race. Long-distance running is a lifestyle and to maintain your body’s ability to manage your daily running endeavors, you must take this opportunity to learn. What caused the injury? What might have prevented it? How can you incorporate these to avoid future injuries?
Focus on your healing process. Put the time that you would have spent training into your rehabilitation.
4. DOUBTS ONE TO TWO WEEKS OUT FROM YOUR RACE
Your thought: “Have I done enough training? Am I really ready for this race? What about that week I had a cold and couldn’t do half of the workouts?”
My advice: If you have done 70 to 80 percent of the training, you are ready. It is OK to question. The nerves building and questioning your training are signs of respect for the challenge that you are about to undertake. This is where good notes in your calendar will help. Look back over some of your higher-mileage weeks and solid building phases. Note the ones where you felt strongest. Read through those notes to feel confident in yourself and your training.
Your thought: “I think I should run more; it’s just killing me to be tapering right now.”
My advice: This frustration and agitated state is also known as Taper Tantrums. Your body is strong and well tuned to your consistent schedule, and might feel like it is craving more work. But 10 days to two weeks out from your race, the taper phase, is the final part of your overall periodization.
Have faith that a reduction in volume and intensity will improve your distance-running performance and running economy. During your taper, think about what you can do. Use that excess energy to visualize and organize for your race. Here’s how:
- Relax in a comfortable chair with a warm beverage and read through the course description or a race report. Close your eyes and visualize how you want to feel at various points on the course. Think about pacing. Will you hike the hills? Strategize on how to quickly move through aid stations. Visualize a strong finish. Who will be there cheering you on as you cross the line? Tune into what you want to feel like in each of these moments.
- Pack your bags. The weekend before your race you will have some extra time, since you should not be running long. As you pack, make a list of any items you still need purchase; buy those items early in the week rather than raiding a 24-hour convenience store the night before the race.
- Make a meal. Have a few friends over, and find ease with this process. Avoid talking about your race. Catching up with friends will give your mind positive things to think about while you are racing.
5. MID-RACE BLOW UP
It is challenging to turn your mind around when your body is failing you.
Your thought: “I’m done. I can’t eat. I feel nauseous. I threw up. My quads are worked. I feel dizzy. I can’t run like I thought I would be running. I am (fill in the blank).”
My advice: If you have not urinated in a couple of hours, your hands are swollen, your weight is up or down or other physical symptoms are adding to your blow up, it is a good idea to engage with a medical professional.
Otherwise, take a deep breath, look at your crew and smile. Maybe one of them can make you laugh or you can crack a joke that gets them laughing. Try, “I paid for this?” or “This is fun, right?” You will be amazed how smiling and laughing will change your perspective.
Ask yourself, “What do I need in this moment to feel better? Have I eaten enough? Am I hydrated? When was the last time I took electrolytes?”
If it is hot, cooling your body down with ice around your neck, washing off your face and swallowing small ice chips will help reduce your core temperature. Taking the time to change your clothes, socks and even shoes can give you a renewed spirit. Perhaps your crew will give you a leg rub to help those beat-up quads.
Then, walk out of the aid station and give yourself one more section to see if you can rally. You might run the second half faster than the first! You might settle into a rhythm that allows you to meet your goal. We learn the most about ourselves when we test our limits.
This article is adapted from the recently published book Running Your First Ultra: Customizable Training Plans for Your First 50K to 100-mile Race, by the accomplished ultrarunner Krissy Moehl.