Tips for Training the Ultrarunning Brain

 

By David Henry, CTS Ultrarunning Coach

I’ve been thinking a lot about assets and, in particular, what asset is most valuable for an ultrarunner. Is it a super-high V02 max, superior pace at lactate threshold, incredible running economy or some other metric? Those are nice, but in the end, really nothing holds quite the power as the full commitment of the mind. Like many people, my mind has been both my greatest asset and biggest stumbling block, not just for races, but in everyday training and life. What do we commit to and why? Is it worth it? Are we good enough? Those questions tend to creep in when we are unclear on what we are trying to accomplish and why, in running and life.

To help make your mind your greatest asset, I recommend the following tools, resources, and strategies.

Do the work to know your ‘Why’

If you don’t have clarity about why you choose to do hard things, you’ll be more likely to pull the plug the moment they start to feel too hard. The inner work of discovering your ‘why’ takes many forms and can look like quiet time, meditation, journaling, asking the hard questions and maybe even going down some dark paths to find out more about who you are. There’s nothing easy about it, but it’s absolutely essential for longevity in a sport that strips you down to the core of who you are during every event. Running itself provides many people with the time to reflect, focus on core values as a person and runner. Once you have an understanding of your ‘why’, make a plan or design some cues to help remind yourself of those values during the hard and trying times. Keep in mind, your values can and probably should change over time; your ‘why’ isn’t something you discover once and never revisit. It is a continual process.

Train Your Mind!

The mind is such a valuable asset and yet it often gets overlooked during the training process. Athletes and coaches spend lots of time focusing on getting the right physiological stimulus at the right time (which are still important!), but often overlook the mind’s critical roles in enhancing performance and coping with stress. Any ability can be trained and your mindset is no exception. Mindfulness training is at the forefront of high performance today and is key to getting the best out of ourselves. I recommend taking a look at National Geographic’s account of the Nike Breaking 2 project and watching/listening to Eluid Kipchoge’s perspective. There was an intense focus on sports science and data, but mental preparation and perspective are what enable athletes to maximize their potential and potentially exceed their own expectations.

Refine your self image

“You cannot outperform your self image.” This quote appears all over motivational texts, and although I haven’t been able to trace its origin, its point is clear. Your capacity or potential is defined by where you set the bar for yourself and what you truly believe (and you have to have done the work) you are capable of. If you don’t honestly believe you are capable of something, chances are you won’t achieve it – even if you have the physical tools (fitness, skills, etc.) to get the job done. How you view yourself goes a long way to determining whether you will become what you envision.

Resources

The mind’s influence on performance increases as training gets more difficult and races get longer. Don’t neglect it! Here are some resources I’ve found helpful in working on mindfulness training in regards to performance in both life and running.

I recently wrote a post on Anxiety and Risk and I’m a big fan of Michael Gervais (not to be confused with Ricky Gervais…). I believe he’s at the forefront of performance psychology today and can’t recommend his fantastic podcast and website, Finding Mastery, enough. I first found out about Michael from the Science Of Ultra podcast episode 24 which is a great place to start and tailored specifically to ultramarathons.

Peak Performance, both the fantastic book and ongoing newsletters by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness, really hone in on how to begin integrating the best practices for physical and mental performance.

The final resources I recommend are your fellow ultrarunners and endurance athletes! While we may not have our mindset as cognitively fleshed out as Gervais or Stulberg/Magness, the ultrarunning community has a great deal of first-hand knowledge about dealing with the mental side of the sport. Keep your mind open to learning from anyone and everyone you find on the trail/road. There is a vast depth of wisdom in the ultra community that we just need to slow down enough to hear/see it.

2 Responses to “Tips for Training the Ultrarunning Brain”

  1. Travis Macy

    Great stuff here, David! Yes, the “why” and “mental training” concepts are a couple of those included in my book on the topic, THE ULTRA MINDSET. Keep up the good work!

    Reply

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