5 Mental Strategies to Improve Your Marathon, Ultra-Marathon, and Beyond

Updated on September 13, 2017
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Amy is a Registered Dietitian and avid ultra-marathon runner. She mixes her love of science, nutrition, and athletics to enhance performanc

Running, especially long distances, requires a different kind of mindset. The kind of mentality that says, “Hey, I like pain” or “Tired, yeah, but not slowing down”. The term ultra-running is usually given to describe runners who train to race distances longer than a marathon. Undeniably Masochistic, these runners have the kind of mental strength that is not easily shaken. While I have heard plenty of testimony on how mental toughness pulled runners through a race, I have also heard many great stories of how this toughness was carried into their personal lives. Many runners who have raced a marathon may think, “If I can do that, I can do anything!” Multiply that mindset to ultra-marathons (those doing fifty miles, one hundred miles, or even more) and the mentality is exponential.

The Big Five

  • Visualization. Mastering this is HUGE for success. Before a race I visualize how difficult portions will be, how my body will ache, how my mind will beg for me to stop, how my stomach may twist and turn, and how even my own mind may try to sabotage me. I turn these thoughts into fuel, imagining at every turn how I will overcome these obstacles. The mind has a hard time deciphering reality from mental preparation. A race run in your mind simulates the same experience as a race run in person. Be specific with your thoughts and visualization. Envision all the good and possibly bad scenarios. Once you visualize yourself finishing a fifty-mile race successfully, you can place this in your memory bank of experiences to draw from in your actual upcoming race. Visualize yourself being faster. A research study looking at 30 ultra-runners divided them into rank (faster and slower runners). The runners that perceived themselves as faster not only ran faster, but also reported that they were less influenced by emotional stimuli during the race. Positive visualization of yourself leads to better outcomes overall.
  • Erase Your Pain. When you run an ultra-marathon (or push yourself past any firmly established comfort zone), there is no question if you’ll feel pain but when. Having a bag of tricks to beat the pain may be what will distinguish you from a back-of-the-pack runner, to the leader. When I visualize pain in my mind before preparing for a race, I replace the pain with a visual of success or the feeling of completing the race. If you practice a visual swap in your mind enough, it becomes second nature. Once you start experiencing pain in the race, you will relate it to your strength and ability to succeed and finish. Endurance runners are unique. Research has looked at the pain tolerance of ultra-runners and compared it to control subjects, results show that they have a very high tolerance to pain. Researchers are still evaluating whether low pain perception leads athletes into the rigorous sport, or if it is an effect of the strenuous training.
  • Trick Yourself. The starting line of a marathon, fifty-mile or one hundred-mile race may seem like an overwhelming place to be. Break it up into 10K’s, half-marathons, or whatever seems manageable to you. Don’t affirm the total distance in your mind until you are deep into it. This technique may save you significant mental anguish when you have a lot of miles ahead of you. I typically break races up into segments of ten miles and celebrate each milestone in my mind as if it were the finish. If the going gets too tough, my milestones become shorter or visual. A tree or the next sign may become the only goal in my mind. I repeat the goal in my mind over and over; “I just need to make it to the next sign”. Completing small goals builds momentum in your brain and gives you the positivity to carry on. Science backs up this theory. Researchers have evaluated endurance cyclist’s performances while telling them varying stories of about the length of a race. The results showed that these athletes could access further energy reserves when being deceived.
  • Zen Out. This may be difficult if this is your first ultra-distance race, but staying mentally attached to the present conditions (mileage achieved, body aches, stress) for hours is tiring on the brain. Detach your awareness from what your body is doing. Entering a daydream world can make hours rapidly disappear until you are awakened by the reality that you are at your next goal. Keeping your mind calm and centered can work miracles.
  • Enjoy EVERY Moment. You train hard to be able to race this far, and you pour your time, money and effort into it. Remember to enjoy views in the run, volunteers that helped you, and huddled crowds of people that cheered as you ran by. I have found that no matter how I am feeling in a race, flashing big smiles and thank-you’s at the volunteers and supporters truly makes ME feel happier inside.

Conclusion

Finally, when your tank is empty and you’re considering giving up, consider this: Navy seals use a rule to configure their mental toughness. It is called the 40% rule and it means that when you think you have nothing left to give, you’re only at about 40% of your potential. Mental strength is at least half the game with ultra-running, and once you begin to master it you will see improvements not only in your running but also in your life.


References

Kerhervé HA, Millet GY, Solomon C. The Dynamics of Speed Selection and Psycho-Physiological Load during a Mountain Ultramarathon., LoS One. 2015; 10(12). Epub 2015 Dec 21.

Joseph T, Johnson B, Battista RA, Wright G, Dodge C, Porcari JP, et al. Perception of fatigue during simulated competition. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2008;40(2):381–6

Baron B, Moullan F, Deruelle F, Noakes TD. The role of emotions on pacing strategies and performance in middle and long duration sport events. Br J Sports Med. 2011;45(6):511–7.

Jones HS, Williams EL, Bridge CA, Marchant D, Midgley AW, Micklewright D, et al. Physiological and psychological effects of deception on pacing strategy and performance: a review. Sports Med. 2013;43(12):1243–57.

Paterson S, Marino FE. Effect of deception of distance on prolonged cycling performance. Percept Mot Skills. 2004;98:1017–26.

Cona G, Cavazzana A, Paoli A, Marcolin G, Grainer A, Bisiacchi PS. It's a Matter of Mind! Cognitive Functioning Predicts the Athletic Performance in Ultra-Marathon Runners. PLoS One. 2015 Jul 14;10(7)

Freund W, Weber F, Billich C, Birklein F, Breimhorst M, Schuetz UH. Ultra-marathon runners are different: investigations into pain tolerance and personality traits of participants of the TransEurope FootRace 2009. Pain Pract. 2013 Sep;13(7):524-32

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