Elite athletes and leisure runners all come across the same obstacles when they set out on an endurance race: the terrain, the difficulty of the race itself (including distance, elevation, how technical conditions are underfoot), the weather; all aspects that physical training can prepare you for to a certain extent.
However, there is one more important piece of the puzzle: mental fatigue and mental training for endurance specifically.
Mental Training and Running Performance
What is mental training for endurance runners and how can you use it to improve your performance in long-distance events?
In this article, we’ll look specifically at two aspects of mental training: the brain endurance training designed to help combat fatigue on race day and techniques to improve mental strength and resilience
Read on to find out:
- How mental fatigue affects our cognitive abilities and impairs decision-making during ultra events
- What tools you can use to address mental fatigue
- What other resilience and psychological strength elements are needed to do well in ultrarunning
- Tips on building a strong, resilient, and flexible psyche for race day
Mental Fatigue: How Does It Affect Endurance Runners?
Scientists and sports psychologists have looked into the effect of fatigue on the brain and researched how physical performance is affected by increased mental tiredness. Mental fatigue is a psycho-biological state caused by long bouts of cognitive exertion. It has been proven to harm both intellectual performance and physical abilities.
Performing cognitive tests, researchers have also found that fatigue increases reaction time during mental tasks. This points to the added difficulty in decision making and therefore not just in performance, but also in staying safe out on trails during endurance events such as ultramarathons.
This is why there has been a good amount of research into how to combat the effects of fatigue on the brain and prepare for endurance events at the same time.
Measures range from the physical (such as taking in caffeine, listening to music, or performing an activity to break out of a continuous rut), to the behavioral or psychological (looking into tapping into athletes’ intrinsic motivation for doing a race or attempting meditation or systematic breathing).
You can find a thorough overview of the methods researched here.
4 Ways To Fight Mental Fatigue During an Endurance Event
Although it is difficult to find a consensus on the methods that work best against mental fatigue, we can pinpoint four measures that were found particularly effective.
Unlike muscle fatigue (which can be tracked a lot more objectively, even if using a rate of perceived exertion), the way athletic performance is affected by the brain being overly exerted or by tiredness is a lot more subjective.
Some people are naturally better at going without sleep and can continue to do well on cognitive tasks even after 24 hours or more without a break. Others naturally need to stop and take a “trail nap” (a regular occurrence on multi-day events that go through one or two nights, such as the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc where runners have 46.5 hours to finish 105 miles, having started at 6pm on the first day – so already banking one sleepless night early on).
Check out the benefits of fastpacking for endurance runners.
Here are 4 countermeasures that seem to work with a wide range of subjects:
- Using pleasant odors during a task that is mentally taxing – a bit tougher to do during an ultramarathon, although some athletes put essential oils onto a headband or wrist band and use these to either wake themselves up or stimulate mental awareness;
- Caffeine intake – this can be a very personal choice and affects everyone differently, but a previous study shows that 3-6 mg of caffeine per kilogram of body mass is the effective dosage for performance-enhancing effects (or to keep you awake!)
(Source: Ganio, Matthew S; Klau, Jennifer F; Casa, Douglas J; Armstrong, Lawrence E; Maresh, Carl M. Effect of Caffeine on Sport-Specific Endurance Performance: A Systematic Review. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: January 2009 – Volume 23 – Issue 1 – pp 315-324).
- In an ultra-race, this can mean taking caffeine pills or liquid caffeine supplements, depending on what products are available in your country. To ensure the best results, you should test these ahead of the long run to see how they interfere with your digestive function so as to avoid unpleasant surprises on race day.
- Listening to music often has an uplifting effect and can add focus and motivation. Upbeat tunes are great, especially in the late night/early morning period where the body really wishes it would be in bed instead.
- You will need to check what the rules apply to using headphones at your event – most running events have banned headphones with the exception of bone conduction models.
- Being distracted or not being able to hear sounds around you, especially when sleep deprived, can be a real danger. We would advise always trying to listen to lower volume music and if possible, using bone conduction earphones to ensure you also hear surrounding sound.
- Extrinsic motivation is the fourth most effective countermeasure against mental fatigue. This can be defined as motivation to achieve a goal or to garner praise and approval. In an endurance event, it can help through motivational self-talk and techniques we will review below.
Resilience and Mental Training for Ultras
In her book “Mental Training for Ultrarunning,” Addie Bracy identifies the key inhibitors to race performance from a psychological perspective:
- The absence of meaningful motivation
- The gap between practical experience and the race demands
- Idealization of the race experience
- Inability to manage distractions and mental fatigue
As she puts it, “if you want to do something hard, you have to get used to doing hard things.” This means developing mental strategies that familiarize yourself with the obstacles you’ll encounter during an endurance event. You may then practice these during long runs, practice races, or in everyday life, so they become second nature by the time you’re dealing with the fatigue and psychological breakdowns.
When we talk about psychological breakdowns in ultras, we don’t just mean being tired. There are lots of ways in which mental training can come in handy in these situations:
- You will need to overcome your brain “protesting” your activity when your muscle fatigue and pain eventually start to become all too noticeable
- You will need a strategy to deal with unforeseen, but likely events, such as injuries (blisters and improper foot care are responsible for huge numbers of drop-outs in endurance running events), equipment breakdown (from your running vest to your shoes, anything could go wrong out in the wild), digestive problems (another major and common problem to elite and sub-elite level runners the world over), and so on
- When you are tired and wavering, mental strategies linking your motivation to your activity can be a lifesaver
Below, we cover (very superficially!) some areas to address to build an effective strategy of mental training for ultra-endurance events.
6 Mental Muscle Tips for Your Next Endurance Race
During an endurance event, the sheer length of time you are on the course can lead to surprises, physical and mental breakdowns, and lots of changes in all influencing factors on your race. Here are some ways to prepare for this.
Find Your Why
Motivation is a huge part of what drives us during hard moments. This is why reflecting on motivation, both external and internal, ahead of your race, will prepare you to keep pushing during moments of doubt, hardship, and fatigue.
A good exercise is to establish your own values – what drives you and what drives you to run, in particular? Once you have this, you can come up with a mantra for positive self-talk and encouragement during the race.
This is even more important as generally, internal motivation is more effective for mental resilience than external motivation (although, for those running to raise money for charity, for example, the knowledge that they would let that organization and the donors down has been proven to do wonders for mental toughness).
Learn To Manage Your Stress Response
From hyping yourself up for a big event to calming yourself down when emotions are threatening to get the better of you, managing stress responses is essential in ultra running.
Some runners find it difficult to tap into their competitive potential and “get the hype” to keep going on races. Others find it overwhelming to be on the start line or to encounter difficulties such as blisters or a sprained ankle. In both cases, developing emotional control will lead to better analysis of the situation and more measured responses.
Techniques that help with this include:
- Visualization – a powerful tool for building excitement and for calming down in equal measure; see yourself crossing the start line, mentally walk through the key parts of the race, aid stations, key climbs or descents, tough parts you might be dreading, etc.
The key is not to just visualize the finish, as that’s the “done deal.” Instead, imagine how you are getting through everything the race throws at you, one step at a time – this will give you the confidence to deal with similar situations on the day
- Meditation – through 3-5 minutes of meditation a day, we can learn to calm our breathing, distance ourselves from life stresses, and see our own athletic performance in a more dispassionate and objective way. In times of stress, this will lead to improved performance as you calmly use your learned skills to deal with whatever goes wrong
- Prepare what-ifs – instead of spending time worrying and possibly overthinking, especially with relation to uncontrollable elements of your race (weather, other runners, etc.), you can prepare a list of controllable elements and how you will react to each. This is excellent preparation for any race and you can add to it as and when you become more experienced.
Additionally, write down any “what if…” question that comes to mind on one half of a sheet of paper, and then problem solve ahead of time and write down what you’ll do if the situation arises:
- Common what-ifs include: sunburn, overheating, blisters, sprained ankles or falls, and digestive issues. For each of them, make a plan of how you’ll react. For example, if you feel you are overheating, plan to ensure you are sipping on a drink with electrolytes mixed in regularly, move to the shade as often as you can, slow down your pace, concentrate on how to breathe while running, and mix walking and running until you feel a little better.
Make Friends With Discomfort
The saying “Make friends with pain and you’ll never be alone” (Ken Chlouber) has never been truer than in relation to ultramarathons. Accepting that discomfort is part of the game goes a long way to prepare for it, dealing with it on race day, and running through it.
Instead of dreading the muscle pain or the stress on your joints that you’re inevitably going to feel at some point during your race, Addie Bracy advises to plan it in. In fact, some elite runners like Courtney Dauwalter even relish it!
Courtney often tells interviewers about her visualization of pain as being in a cave, and how she takes her chisel and starts making her way through the “pain cave” to discover new rooms and galleries when she’s running an ultra. Thinking about this and actually welcoming the pain (“This is what we’re here for!” she says with a smile in almost every documentary featuring her running) makes her such a mentally resilient athlete.
We’re not saying you need to celebrate the pain but accepting it and knowing that you have the tools and the preparation to keep going will make the difference between finishing and not finishing an ultra. In Bracy’s book, she suggests some helpful phrases to use when talking to yourself. Instead of thinking, “I’m in pain,” think, “I’m hurting because I’m challenging myself, but I can handle this and I’m going to come out stronger.”
Avoid Fortune Telling
Whenever things feel tough in a race, it’s easy to catastrophize – starting to think that this is the “beginning of the end” or wondering, if things are so bad right now, how will you get to mile 80, 90, or 100 of a run? This is absolutely normal, and it’s often referred to informally in sports psychologist circles as fortune telling.
In other words, there is no value in assuming or wondering how things will be a few hours later from where you are right now. Ultramarathons are long, and many things can change along the way.
Your mood will fluctuate (sometimes depending on fatigue, other times nutrition, or even with the time of day) and you are very likely to feel a lot better once you’ve gone through an aid station, taken some time to rest and regroup, maybe change kit or eat something different.
So, instead of “fortune telling” and spending mental energy on imagining what might happen later (for better or worse), run the mile you’re in and be present where you are. Focus on executing the part of the course you are currently in, to the best of your abilities, and the rest will follow naturally.
Trust the process
While this is very good advice for staying motivated during training, it’s also a good way of boosting mental toughness during hard patches in an ultra event.
Before you start, you will very likely have prepared a timing sheet with the expected times you would hit every major checkpoint in order to achieve your finishing goal. Ideally, you should have an “A” goal (main goal and best possible result) and then a couple of “plan B” alternatives in case you slow down for whatever reason (so a “B” and “C” goal). That helps against deception if you check your timesheet and are behind A goal pace at any point.
You should also have a rough plan of how you will tackle the race. This includes a nutrition strategy, crew plans (if you can be given outside assistance), aid station plans, etc.
The timing and the logistics plans come together as your race process goals. Resolve to stick to these goals, trust the process, and not focus on the finish or end result (which is your outcome goal).
Sticking to process goals helps elite runners avoid throwing off their race because they chase others’ pace early on (see how some professionals move from being 10-12 positions behind to end up on the podium through a well-executed strategy, like Mathieu Blanchard during UTMB 2022).
Let Go of Self-limiting Beliefs
“Whether you think you can or you think you can’t – you’re right” (Henry Ford). This may sound cheesy but having an unshakable belief that you can achieve the goal you’ve set yourself ahead of an ultra is extremely important.
Self-doubt leaves room for negative thoughts, which in turn can convince you to abandon when faced with adversity (whether that is an injury that you can carry on with or just feelings of fatigue).
Running with courage and with an open mind, accepting the challenges but knowing that you have the preparation and the tool kit to deal with them, and focusing on how you can problem solve anything that comes up – all these are as important as your physical training in the weeks and months leading to a 100-mile race.
So, practice overcoming self-limiting beliefs by keeping a confidence journal where you write all your achievements and/or running sessions that have gone well. Refer back to this every time you feel doubt ahead of the race. The memories and the self-confidence will follow you into the race.
Training Your Brain for Ultras
Having a good mental performance during ultramarathons is just as important – or even more so sometimes – as physical performance.
Once we pass a threshold of effort and fatigue, the mental toughness tools we’ve prepared in training will be the ones to motivate us to overcome pain and discomfort. And, while mental fatigue can be a significant inhibitor of ultra performance, we’ve now covered a few effective countermeasures to help with this, too.