During our recent Memorial Day ultrarunning camp, I issued a simple challenge to each of our coaches – distill all of the coaching knowledge you have into ONE piece of advice you could give to any ultramarathon runner. The piece of advice had to fit into a two-minute spiel and we weren’t allowed to share or collaborate on our individual piece until we presented them to the whole group. We dubbed the exercise ‘THE ONE’ and here’s what we said.
“Don’t count yourself out.” – Corrine Malcolm
You have no idea what might happen once you leave the start line. You may feel overwhelmed or inadequate standing there, waiting to start. You may even have your list of excuses lined up: She’s so much faster than me. He won last week’s race. Look at gear she has compared to mine. I should have gotten more sleep. I don’t run well on cold mornings. And on and on…
These thoughts don’t go away once you leave the start line, either. They can pop up at any moment when the going gets tough. Yet, time and again we’ve seen athletes overcome tremendous odds or fight their way back from seemingly certain defeat. The key is that they didn’t count themselves out. They didn’t defeat themselves by succumbing to doubt and negative thoughts. If you’re on the start line, you’re all in.
“Embrace what is difficult and uncomfortable.” – Darcie Murphy
I work with a lot of ultraendurance athletes, particularly ultramarathon runners, and these events are hard. The training is hard. The level of commitment is difficult. The conditions are often uncomfortable. To be successful you have to embrace all of that, not shy away from it or try to work your way around it. You don’t need to love pain or suffer just for the sake of suffering, but you do have to accept there will be times that endurance and ultraendurance sports hurt. When athletes get too worked up trying to avoid all discomfort, they lose focus on actually training or competing.
“For every one minute you spend training your body, spend two minutes training your mind.” – Andy Jones-Wilkins
Training your body is important, but endurance and ultraendurance events are rarely won solely because one athlete was physically superior to everyone else. Physiologically, there’s not much separating the top ultrarunners in any field. What separates them on the course is how they think, how they make decisions, what they use to motivate themselves, how they deal with adversity, etc. The same is true for any runner. Physically there isn’t much difference between the runners who reach the finish line in the final hour before the cutoff and those who just miss it.
There are opportunities everywhere to work on developing the mental skills for success in ultraendurance sports. You develop resilience when things don’t go your way. You learn to make decisions when you’re tired after the baby wakes up at 2am for a few weeks. You learn about patience and gratitude while recovering from an injury, or hip surgery in my case. Many people use running as an escape, but you also have to use non-running lessons to become a better runner!
“Cultivate grit.” – David Henry
Grit doesn’t just happen. It’s the result of an active process of showing up every day and putting in the hard work. You can’t buy it, borrow it, usurp it, or fake it. That’s why it is so valuable and why I deliberately say it should be ‘cultivated’. Grit is something slightly different to each person, based on his or her experiences, priorities, and goals. It is important for athletes to keep stretching their comfort zones and seeking experiences that will add to their resilience and confidence.
“Surround yourself with good people.” – John Fitzgerald
Endurance and ultraendurance athletes perform better when they have good support systems. The people you surround yourself with can make you a stronger and more prepared athlete, or they can drain your energy and put obstacles between you and success. Be picky about the people you choose to lean on for support, and understand you have a responsibility to support them, too.
“Be really, really physically prepared.” – Adam St. Pierre
Greater fitness solves – or at least lessons – most problems. ‘Be more fit’ may sound like obvious advice for endurance and ultraendurance athletes, but you’d be amazed by the number of athletes who focus, physically, on everything except the actual fundamentals of training. I primarily coach ultrarunners and, like Andy, think that mental training is crucial. But from the physical training side, the best thing most ultrarunners can do is run as much as they can reasonably run, mostly easy, with some hard bits.
“Adapt.” – Jason Koop
Training, racing, and life rarely go to plan, and if you create plans that are too rigid then being successful is just a matter of luck. Everything has to go just right in order for an overly rigid plan to succeed, which is why they rarely do. I tell my athletes that all the physical and mental training they do will only prepare them for 5% of what will actually happen in a race. For everything else you’ll have to adapt, pulling from the knowledge you have and the work you have done in order to create the best solution for the conditions. The best thing a coach can teach an athlete is how to be flexible in their approach to challenges.
“Learn to love the process.” – Jim Rutberg
To stay engaged in endurance sports long-term, you have to love the process of training. Sometimes the event you’re training for is a year or more away, and that’s a long time to maintain enthusiasm and focus. In the best-case scenario, it’s not the events that keep you engaged in your sport. Rather, your love for the sport and the process of training is ideally what sustains your engagement, and the events give you something to direct your training toward.
This advice came from an athlete who was present during this exercise, and it’s a great point so we’re including it. Be nice to yourself. As endurance athletes we spend a lot of time by ourselves, and in our own heads. It is very easy to be hard on yourself and be your own worst critic. Instead, make the effort to celebrate the good things you do for yourself, and not just every once in a while when you accomplish something big. Celebrate the small victories and the little things you do for yourself each day.
Effective coaching takes complex topics and ultimately boils them down into simple pieces of instruction. This exercise was no different, and I found it fascinating. We had 8 coaches representing nearly 100 years of collective coaching experience dishing out advice that could fit into a 3 minute elevator pitch. While each coach’s piece of advice certainly varied, I believe this illustrates one key themes in ultrarunning: you have to be prepared for everything. The physical, the mental, the environment, yourself; all of these elements will challenge you during training and competition. Take none of those challenges for granted, be prepared for them all.