Mental strength is a term bandied about by many runners. It is essential part of performing to the best of your ability but what is it and how can you improve it?
Whilst it is hard to define and many people will have a differing ideas, my definition is that mental strength is the ability to control your mind no matter how your body feels. It’s the ability to stay focussed on the now and not dwell on the what if’s.
A marathon and particularly an ultramarathon involve a lot of time on your own and therefore a lot of time for the voice in your head to affect your performance. Dealing with all the thoughts and emotions that come up is critical for a good race.
When I first started extreme endurance events my mental strategy was simply take it one mile at a time. This was relatively effective but over the years I have developed and am still developing more refined mental strategies to better cope with the both racing and training.
The two strategies which I believe are superior to all others is to improve your ability to stay in the present moment and to be able to focus your mind on what you chose to focus on. If you can do this then no matter what happens in the race you will be able to deal with it.
Without the ability to focus our thoughts, our mind becomes a mixture of thoughts ranging from very positive to very negative. Giving in to the negative thoughts will sabotage your chances of finishing in a good time (or finishing at all) more than anything else.
Think of all the typical negative thoughts that go through your mind in an ultra
” My legs hurt , I don’t know how I’ll make it to the finish”
” I cant keep this pace up”
” Will I make it through this bad patch ”
” If my legs are this sore after 50 miles how am I going to run another 50″
” I don’t know how I will handle this hill/rain/ heat/ cold / etc for much longer”
” I’m not sure I can make it to the checkpoint in time”
” Why can’t I keep up with Jo Blogs , I’m faster than him in training”
” The legs just aren’t feeling it today , I’m not sure how I will go”
We all have these types of thoughts in races and sometimes we overcome them and sometimes we dont. Occasionally we let them get the better of us, we back off the pace because it hurts too much, we walk when we know we should probably be running , we give up and pull out when maybe we could have kept going and still finished and we have sections were we should be have been quicker.
But what if you had a race where none of these thoughts came into your mind?
What if the only thoughts that you had were positive and reaffirming ?
Would racing (and training) be a more positive , rewarding and successful experience?
How to eliminate negative thoughts and stay positive 100% of the time.
American ultrarunner Antonio Krupicka wrote recently on why Kyle Skaggs broke the record for the Hardrock 100 miler by over 7 hours
“Running at that intensity on that kind of terrain for that long takes an unwavering, relentless attitude of indifference and non-attachment. The mental effort of the knowledge of the enormity of the task is what consumes most people, and along with everything else, Kyle managed it better than anyone else on that course ever. He never resorted to music, nor extended breaks at aid stations. He simply never allowed himself to get too high or too low.”
Indifference and non- attachment ; any of you who have practised meditation or know anything of Buddhist philosophy will recognise those words.
It refers to the ability to recognise what is going on but not to attach any thoughts, feeling or emotion to it. It is what it is and nothing more. As soon as we start labelling things we get into problems.
That feeling you have in your quads after 50 miles many of us label as pain or fatigue. But these are merely labels and they start to generate negative thoughts.
I don’t mean to infer that the mind can overcome a complete lack of physical training , but instead of labelling thoughts and feelings with words such as pain, fatigue etc if we merely observe them with indifference and non attachment our experience becomes very different.
How does this work in practice?
Training your mind to have non attachment and indifference is not easy and takes time.
To start with simply focus on your breathing when you run. You will obviously need to be peripherally aware of your surroundings but try and focus on the feeling of air passing in and out of your lungs , either through your nose if it is an easy run or mouth if it’s harder.
You will find that initially you may be only able to do this for seconds before you are distracted by something else. With practice you will be able to hold your focus for longer and longer.
During hard interval sessions focus your mind on the movement of running , the feeling of your legs driving you forward and of air being sucked in and forced out. Alternatively focus on a feeling of gratitude that you are able to run hard and fast and a feeling of joy.
When your legs are screaming at you to stop or slow down this will require considerable mental strength and you may only be able to hold those feelings for short periods of time. But with practice your interval sessions will be an experience of happiness rather than one of pain.
These strategies can then be applied during races. You can change your focus from breathing , to your nutrition needs, your running form , navigation, hydration etc as the race dictates. Observing all of this with indifference and non attachment, allowing yourself to stay positive and mentally stable throughout the whole race.
If that all sounds a bit too out there for you consider this.
If during a race you never had a negative thought or self doubt how much better would your races be.
There are two ways to achieve this – you can rely on luck – that magical combination of great weather, perfect training, nothing going wrong in the race, no bad patches etc or you can simply control your mind.
One you can control the other you can’t. I know which option I prefer!
I have only scratched the surface of this topic and for further reading I recommend the book Running with the Mind of Meditation: Lessons for Training Body and Mind by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. He is a Tibetan monk who runs marathons!