To complete any Ultra you need to be mentally tough. But what is mental toughness? Mental toughness is about resilience and self confidence. It’s about having the focus and determination to overcome the unexpected. It’s your ability to continue in the face of challenges, mistakes, and failure. And the good news is, mental toughness can be developed.
How do you develop mental toughness?
There are a number of key steps in building your mental toughness. The first, and most obvious(!), is sticking to the programme, even when you don’t want to! Those days when you just want to crawl back under the covers, when you really don’t want to run in the rain, snow, or hail, the days when you’d rather put your feet up – get the run done anyway. Those are the days when you start to build that resilience, toughness and belief.
But let’s take a step back…why are you doing this in the first place? Why commit to an Ultramarathon? Why push yourself this hard? With all this training?
Why, Why, Why….
When times get tough and an athlete (that’s you by the way) asks themselves why they are doing this, there MUST be an answer. We will ask you this at the beginning of your programme, and regularly throughout, but anchoring in a purpose, a reason, a ‘why’ is what will make the difference when you find yourself in the deep dark hole (and trust us you will) – focusing on your purpose will be what gets you out the other side and on towards your finish.
Preparing for the unexpected
There’s a lot of things that can go wrong over the course of an Ultra. You can’t prepare for every eventuality but thinking through issues will help you build mental strength and have a set of coping mechanisms in place.
Write a list of everything you can think of that could go wrong
Work through how you will deal with each item.
Just doing this simple exercise will already mean you are better prepared. However, take it further:
Now review your list, what can be done to stop that thing happening or minimise the risk?
implement mitigations (e.g. dehydration risk – develop and implement a hydration strategy and train to it; blisters – tape hotspots before you start, carry a blister kit, deal with hotspots early)
Numerous academic studies have shown the positive benefits of visualisation. This doesn’t have to be some elaborate meditative event, just taking 10 minutes once or twice a week to visualise aspects of your event will help. Visualisation is about preparing your mind and allowing it (and you) to prepare for what’s to come. Things you can visualise include:
Dealing with fatigue (mental and fatigue).
Clearing a technical section of the trail without tripping or falling.
The feeling of environmental factors (examples are altitude, heat, humidity or cold) so that they do not come as a shock on race day
Getting everything needed (i.e. hydration vest) in an aid station before exiting.
The sense of accomplishment at the finish, who is there, how will you celebrate?
Overcoming your Fears
Everyone entering an Ultra will have a fear, something they are worried about. A bit of anxiety can be a good thing, it keeps you on your toes. But a real fear can hold you back. As part of your visualisation, think about the things that you are worried about (e.g. running alone in the dark, getting lost) and use the visualisation to confront that fear. How will you cope? See yourself overcoming your fear, confronting it and beating it (how will you beat it?). Doing this won’t remove the fear, but it will help you desensitize, and crucially cope if your fear is realised.
Set targets, build habits
Part of getting through the Ultra training journey will need you to set small immediate targets…small steps towards a big goal. These targets can be physically or mentally related, but can also be about building the right habits and behaviours so that things require nil or reduced conscious effort on the day. For example, set a target to drink every 20 minutes on your long run, or aim to eat 100 calories every 20 minutes.
Mental fatigue, regardless of the cause, can increase the perceived effort of a runner and thus reduces physical performance; in one study those with mental fatigue quit strenuous activity 15% sooner than those that were mentally rested. On an Ultra you will get mentally fatigued. Use your training, including things like visualisation, to recognise mental fatigue and do not let yourself be seduced by the easy option (aka quitting!).
ADAPT (and overcome)
‘Stuff’ happens on an Ultra, likely when you are not expecting it. When the inevitable curve ball arrives we like the ADAPT acronym, not only for training but also for race day. ADAPT stands for:
ACCEPT – accept the circumstances and don’t allow them to completely derail you. Worse than that don’t project forwards, e.g. if I feel this bad now, how will I feel in 10 miles time? In an Ultra event, and in training, stay focused on, and deal with the present.
DIAGNOSE – What is the issue? But be honest with yourself, there is no time for blame or reflection in an Ultra.
ANALYSE – what can I do about it? what are my options? Are there any negative consequences to my actions (i.e. breaking rules and being disqualified, or making an injury worse)
PLAN – select an option and form a plan to OVERCOME your problem.
TAKE ACTION – Now you’ve thought (rationally and logically!) through the issue time to get on with fixing it! Get back on track and put it behind you. The past can’t be changed, learnt from maybe, but for now you have a goal to achieve so that can all wait for the debrief later!
As an example, my feet were killing me, I knew that in 10 miles there was a really rough section, I started to fear that section. Using ADAPT, I accepted my situation, the foot pain kind of happens 75 miles in! The issue was mostly in my head, and it was in the future. My options were simple, let it beat me into quitting, or ease off the pace a little and see how my feet felt when I got to the rough section. So the plan was easy, get to the rough section and then see what happened…which was largely nothing, my feet had recovered sufficiently!
Prior Preparation Prevents a Pretty Poor Performance (6 Ps!)
Success on race day is a combination of preparation, belief and support. You need to develop your mental toughness just as much as your physical prowess. Use techniques like visualisation and mental preparation to help you develop your mental resilience. Believing in yourself, being confident in your preparation, and ADAPTING to any issues will significantly increase your chances of Ultra success.