April 16, 2017

Getting Into the Ultra Mindset - Vol. 1

Recently someone asked me to write about the challenges of mental training for ultra marathons. Hah! If I ever write a book about ultra running, I will most definitely dedicate a chapter if not the entire book to this topic!

One of the greatest athletes of all time – Mohamed Ali – said that a man who views the world the same at 50 as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life. Do you get where I’m going with this one? I started running marathons in my late 20s, then switched to ultras in my mid 40s. For better or worse, everything I thought I knew about running has changed.

The term mental training is really a euphemism for teaching yourself to embrace a mindset. For me, when I switched to running ultras it meant teaching myself how to think differently. To abandon the mental shackles that controlled my perceptions and expectations about running and being a runner.

To begin, let me say I’m going to build on this topic over several intermittent posts (hence the Volume 1 above). There is just too much to write on this topic in a single post.

Lets start with preparation. How do you prepare mentally for an ultra marathon? (For purposes of these posts, I’m going to use mountain oriented 100 milers when I refer to ultras. Everything else is just a long marathon :-). Rule of thumb – pace means nothing, so stop obsessing over it. Really folks, especially those coming from a marathon background, throw away any GPS that is tracking your real-time pace or splits. Why? First off, your poor ego will be devastated to learn that your mile pace is very often barely faster than a brisk walk.

Depending on the terrain, altitude, vertical gain, descent, heat, daylight, distance covered, nutrition/hydration – your pace and energy levels will very wildly. Mentally speaking, you have to be prepared to roll with this and not try to control it. The mindset that you control your pace and use a GPS to monitor it is like thinking you can fly the Apollo to the moon with a compass. Your leaving the earth’s magnetic field my friend, it ain’t going to get you there. Think of it this way - when you’re running 100 miles in the mountains, you entering a new stratosphere. What worked at ground level won’t help you up there.

Rather than monitoring your pace, turn your mental focus inward, to your energy output. This is critical in training because you need to teach your mind patience and your body how to move efficiently for long periods. In most cases, the slower you start, the faster you will finish – in workouts and races. As one of my running mentors says, when it comes to training, it’s all about “time on foot.” Yes. It’s more than just a slogan.