Introduction – Ultra-Running and Mental Toughness
If you’re an ultra-runner, you’ve almost certainly heard someone saying that running an ultra “is mostly mental,” or maybe they’ll even give you some sort of bogus number like 90% mental, 10% physical. Well, you DO have to physically handle traveling the distance on your feet. If you don’t have the physical attributes to do so, covering 100 miles isn’t going to happen. That is, not without severe repercussions like injury and danger to personal safety.
But, undoubtedly, the mental game is a HUGE factor in ultra-running, perhaps more so than any other sport. An ultra-runner’s mind can literally talk them out of finishing, or at the least, performing up to potential. For example, in a 100-mile ultramarathon, participants will often take 24-30 hours to finish such a race. Sure, some people do it significantly faster, but let’s talk about the average ultra-runner. 24 hours is a LONG time to….hurt.
As ultra-runners, we’ve all been there. Where we just can’t get out of our own head. There are those times when all we can think about are things like;
My legs hurt so F’ing bad. Am I injured? Can I really make it another 50 miles when I already feel like hell? It’s so hot. It’s so cold. Am I going to die? It’s not worth it. This is stupid. Did I train enough? Did I overtrain? And the list goes on and on FOREVER.
This endless cycle is exhausting. But how do you stop it? Are there strategies to overcome overthinking and, in particular, negative thinking during an ultramarathon? Yes, there are strategies to effectively calm and control the mind during tough situations in an ultramarathon. And, when you can’t calm and control your mind, maybe at least you can grit your teeth and bear it.
Strategies for Overcoming Pain During an Ultra
Acknowledge that it’s going to hurt.
When athletes accept that what they are about to do will hurt, rather than attempt to convince themselves otherwise, they perform better. When ultra-runners go into an ultramarathon knowing that it’s going to suck at some point, they aren’t caught off-guard and devastated when they feel like shit – it was expected. Endurance athletes should know as well as anyone that if they hope to perform well in a race, it’s going to take a lot of discomfort on their part.
Acknowledging and accepting the future pain influences you to say things to yourself like – “Ok, here it is, I knew it was coming, let’s go.” “This is part of it.” “I’ve got to push through this.”
Instead of “Oh, shit. This hurts.” “I wonder why it’s hurting so bad. Is this normal?” “Did I do something wrong in training?” And so on. All that crap is detrimental to your psychological state, and it’s mentally exhausting.
Remember, at some point during an ultramarathon, it’s going to suck; if it doesn’t, you’re probably not trying hard enough. BUT, IT WILL ALWAYS BE WORTH IT!
Change your attitude towards pain.
Pain is neither negative nor positive until we MAKE it one or the other. There’s nothing inherently negative about pain*. Stop giving it a negative label every time it shows it’s ugly, I mean pretty, little face.
Think of your pain as progress. After all, ultra-running is an endurance sport. There really is no progress without discomfort in endurance sports, so quit shining a bad light on it. Instead, recognize it, realize that it’s part of the process, and keep rolling.
*FYI, if your pain is associated with a REAL injury, then most of this advice goes out the window. Again, REAL injury, not some conjured-up illusion of an injury that is a byproduct of your discomfort. Some ultra-runners will say they are injured, so they DNF. And then they’re training full force 2-3 days later. This was likely them conceding to discomfort and what their mind convinced them of, rather than an actual injury. Learn to recognize the difference. In the case of an injury, only you can decide whether or not pressing on is justified.
Remember how tough you are.
Endurance athletes are tough as nails. Ultra-running and mental toughness go hand in hand. That’s more than just an opinion, too. It’s backed by hard science.
A study by Pettersen et al. (2020) compared pain threshold (the point at which a sensation is perceived as pain), pain tolerance (how long one is willing to withstand pain), and pain intensity (how intense someone perceives pain) of 3 groups. These groups included elite endurance athletes, elite soccer players, and non-athletes.
Endurance athletes scored the highest of the groups on all three tests; however, their score was not significantly higher than the soccer players in the pain threshold test.
The most significant difference was in the pain tolerance test. This test required participants to hold a hand in ice-cold water for as long as they could tolerate, but only for up to 3 minutes. All of the endurance athletes except for one made it to 3 minutes, and their average time was 179.67 seconds. The non-athletes managed 116.78 seconds, and the soccer players actually managed less than anyone – 113.9 seconds (Pettersen et al., 2020).
So what’s the takeaway? The point at which endurance athletes perceive pain as pain is not different than other athletes. However, they seem to tolerate the same pain significantly better. Endurance athletes are not numb to pain; they are resilient to pain.
This is far from the only study showing that endurance athletes have a very high tolerance to discomfort. So, if you’re in an extraordinary amount of pain during an ultramarathon, remind yourself of how you’re one of the toughest SOBs there is (and that your soccer friend would have quit a long time ago).
Reflect on what you’ve already been through.
Remind yourself of all you’ve already overcome – the hellish training runs, previous races, and even personal experiences which had nothing to do with ultra-running. They all make you tougher (if you use them right). Try to think of specific times when you’ve been extraordinarily miserable and pushed through the pain (physical or emotional) and come out the other side.
You’ve been in pain before and got through it, and you’ll get through it this time.
Next, it’s beneficial for me to think of WHY I’m doing what I’m doing. Why am I willing to suffer so much? These need to be some big reasons, and you should write them down before the ultramarathon. You can even create little “note” cards and have your crew stick a new one in your pack or handheld every section. Pull it out when you’re feeling lousy. Mine are all in my head, so I don’t need the card. But it might be helpful initially.
Nobody can tell you what your “whys” are. But various studies have shown that when what motivates someone is BIGGER than themselves, they tend to be more resilient. In other words, if you’re aiming for a goal that is just at the edge of your physical and mental capabilities and that you will have to suffer tremendously for, you better have a pretty damn meaningful reason why you’re doing it. It probably needs to be more than a desire to show off a fancy buckle on Facebook to all your friends. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, but there’s a good chance that alone is not big enough to get you through the very dark times.
As I said, nobody can tell you your “whys,” but just to get the gears rolling, here are some things that have given me a little push when things get real. Maybe, you can create something of your own from these ideas.
*Remember, use motivational tools to push through the pain and stick to your race plan. If you use them early in an ultra, don’t allow them to increase your pace beyond what is sustainable.
- Who are you doing it for? This can be anyone. Your spouse, mom, a person with a chronic illness, the disabled, your God, an animal, a cause, whatever speaks to you. What are you passionate about?
- Think about all the people that doubted (or still doubt) you. Ah, yes, those MF’ers. While it might seem petty, running with a chip on your shoulder can work wonders during tough times. Some of the times I’ve been able to power through the most discomfort was when I was running pissed off. Anger tends to drown out some pain in my experience. Think about proving them wrong.
- What do you want to prove to yourself? What do you hope to gain? Every time I accomplish a goal, whether it be in ultra-running or another aspect of my life, I feel like I have pushed back my limits just a bit. The equivalent of “leveling-up” in a video game. I feel that afterward, I am stronger (mentally) than I was before the race started. Swag is cool, but I really wouldn’t lose sleep if someone threw all my buckles in the trash. I think the best rewards stay with us. Maybe that’s not you, and that’s fine. You have to find out what makes you tick.
Think about how lucky you are to be doing what you’re doing. You’re running an ultramarathon. You’re attempting to do something pretty damn incredible, something only a relatively small percentage of people will do.
Be grateful that you live in an environment that allows you the freedom to pursue such things. Some people don’t. Be grateful that you have legs to run with; some people don’t. Be grateful for your crew, the nature around you, the RD’s and volunteers, and even the damn rock you just tripped over. It’s all good. Remember, you signed up and PAID to do this.
Negativity will destroy your mind during an ultra. It’s impossible to be negative and grateful at the same time.
Take in the beauty of your surroundings.
Many ultramarathons are run in gorgeous settings. And no matter the environment, you can likely find some beauty in it.
My wife and I direct a race called the Hell Creek 100, which takes place at the beautiful Wilson Lake in Kansas. Many out-of-state people have commented that they couldn’t believe how beautiful (and challenging) the course is. Some even comment that they couldn’t stop taking pictures during their race.
Don’t be afraid to stop and take in a beautiful view – it can change your mental viewpoint.
Additional Strategies for Ultra-Running and Mental Toughness
Prepare your mind with mindfulness practice.
Meditation – The scientifically validated benefits of meditation are too numerous to list, and various characteristics would likely result in better ultra-running performance. But to remain on the topic of mental toughness, Wu et al. (2021) demonstrated that mindfulness positively correlates with the mental toughness of college athletes.
Additionally, a paper published in the European Journal of Sport Science showed that recreational cyclists who practiced mindfulness were less likely to participate in pain catastrophizing (Jones & Parker, 2018). If you were wondering, pain catastrophizing is what it sounds like – it’s taking the pain out of context and the inability to inhibit pain-related thoughts.
I think we can all agree that ultra-runners, and all endurance athletes for the matter, could benefit from less pain catastrophizing.
Visualization – Visualization is another great tool for endurance athletes. Ultra-runners should visualize themselves in every aspect of their race, trying to include all possible scenarios; feelings may not come as so much of a surprise come ultramarathon day.
Visualize what you will do in various situations, how you will feel, what it will sound and smell like, and how you will overcome and adapt to conditions.
Delay Mental Fatigue As Long As Possible.
When the mind gets tired, it gets weak. This is a big issue in ultramarathons of 100-miles or more, where participants will experience sleep deprivation. When the mind gets tired, it impairs endurance performance and often results in a lack of discipline and giving into temptation. In ultras, that temptation might be to sit down for an unnecessary amount of time, slow the pace beyond what is needed, or even throw in the towel.
Various studies demonstrate the negative impact of cognitive fatigue on self-discipline and its result of giving in to temptation. This process is often referred to as “ego-depletion.” It helps to have a good crew during times of extreme cognitive fatigue so they can essentially think for you.
Additionally, there are effective strategies to prevent, delay, or deal with the inevitable cognitive fatigue that will come with longer-duration ultramarathons.
Caffeine – Caffeine, as we all know, is terrific at combating fatigue. Timing your caffeine intake correctly to get you through rough patches can give you a tremendous boost. Often ultra-runners choose to hold off on caffeine until the middle of the night when they get particularly sleepy. The best way to incorporate caffeine into an ultramarathon is largely dependent upon the length and duration of the ultra, caffeine sensitivity (and dependence), and personal preference.
BCAAs – BCAAs effectively prevent and delay mental (cognitive) fatigue in endurance sports when taken correctly. For more information on how BCAAs help cognitive fatigue and other aspects of endurance performance see BCAAs For Ultra-Endurance Athletes. For hands-down, the best supplement to prevent cognitive fatigue in ultramarathons, check out T-30. It was explicitly designed for ultra-runners to do precisely that and more.
There are additional dietary supplements that can assist with mental fatigue during an ultramarathon, for more information read 5 Best Endurance Supplements for Mental Fatigue.
Nap – It’s amazing what a 10-15 minute power nap can do to change your mindset in an ultra. This is especially true in multi-day ultramarathons where sleep deprivation is amplified. Remember, you’re not going to accomplish anything significant in terms of physical recovery during this time, so it doesn’t need to be a long nap. The goal is to simply give yourself a little mental reset.
I’d like to just say that I, by NO MEANS, have it all figured out when it comes to all the mental battles that take place during ultra-running. I struggle plenty. The list above has worked for me in the past and/or are strategies that science suggests may be beneficial. I’ve got a LOT to learn and need to do my own practice incorporating some of the mental strategies indicated above.
Remember, SO MUCH of ultra-running sport is a head game. The longer the race, the truer that becomes, in my opinion.
Personally, I love ultra-running FOR the psychological aspect of the sport more than anything. Honestly, I now look forward to those brutal, challenging moments rather than worry about them. I’m not saying I have any delusions that I will enjoy those moments. But I know that’s where the good stuff is. That’s where you find out what the hell you’re made. That’s where mental growth occurs. I think that’s how one needs to approach it – it’s beneficial, so what’s to fear?
Yes, when I get to “the suck,” I’ll inevitably want out of it, AND I’ll get out of it…at the end of the race!