8 mental strategies to get you through an ultra

This blog was written by Beth Pascall, ultrarunner and winner of the Western States 100 2021, Canyons 100K 2021 and Ultra-Trail Cape Town 2019 to name a few.

During a long run it isn’t usually our legs that give up first. It’s our head. I’ve been racing ultramarathons since 2014 and I think about quitting all the time. There are occasions when quitting is the smart thing to do (injury, for example), but most of the time we can push on through.

They say the first of an ultramarathon is run with our body, and the second half with our mind. When I’m struggling in a race and considering pulling the plug, I weigh up the options in my mind, think about how I’m going to feel in a few days time if I DNF. That feeling would usually be regret, so I decide to continue. I’m going to share some of the things that help me get in the right headspace for a race, and how I muddle on when I feel like the odds are against me.

  1. Rest before the race

I don’t just mean rest physically, resting your mind is just as important as resting your legs. For an important race I try to take a couple of days off work beforehand to chill out. Doing nothing is difficult, but factoring in some downtime in the days leading up to the race to freshen up will mean you have the capacity to dig much deeper mentally when things get tough. You don’t want to be on the start line stressing about something. You want to be as happy and relaxed as possible.

  1. Know your why

It is cliché, but it’s kind of important. Why are you doing this race? Why do you want to get to the finish line? Perhaps it’s to inspire your kids, or to raise money for charity. Perhaps it’s just for that Instagram post, which is fine, but how will you explain it on social media if you don’t finish? That can be a strong incentive. Mid-race I think about everyone who has helped me get to the start line, everyone who has made sacrifices to get me that far, and that’s usually enough to keep me going. Contrary to mainstream belief, running is rarely an individual sport.

  1. Most problems can be solved by eating

Eating during a racing isn’t just about fuelling your muscles. Your brain needs glucose to function properly too. When we’re not eating enough we make decisions with the emotional part rather than the rational part. When I get low on fuel my brain bombards me with messages telling me to quit. It usually isn’t obvious that food is the issue and I’m rarely physically hungry in a race, but getting 200-400 calories in me fixes most problems, including that desire to stop running.

  1. Break it down

I know this can be said for any daunting task, but it does work. Break the race down into chunks. Checkpoint to checkpoint or even a mile at a time. It helps to have way of tracking your progress such as a GPS watch, but just remembering how many checkpoints there are until the finish will suffice. Don’t think about the finish fine, just about getting to the next milestone.

  1. Distraction

There are times when being super-focused, in the moment is the best approach. But in longer races when you are getting particularly uncomfortable, sometimes distraction is the best approach. Chat to other runners, listen to music or a podcast.

  1. Be adaptable

Stuff will go wrong. You must know and accept this before you start. It happens to even the most successful runners. But the most successful runners are usually the best problem solvers too. When things don’t go to plan try not to despair. Re-adjust your goals mid-race and try to problem solve. Focus on the things that are going well. You might have blisters and are running out of water, but didn’t you just nail that last downhill?

  1. It will get better (eventually)

We have a tendency to extrapolate. “If I feel this bad at after 20 miles, I’m going to feel twice as bad after 40 miles …”. Ultrarunning doesn’t work like that. There will be tough periods for sure, but an ultramarathon is usually a rollercoaster of ups and downs. The tough periods are, more often than not, followed by easier miles. Remember, it never always get worse (not my quote!)

  1. The cheapest performance enhancers - Smile!

Yes, it’s a proven performance enhancer. Smile at other runners, the volunteers, or just for your own selfies. After all, it’s meant to be fun (mainly). Offer a gel to a runner who is struggling. It won’t just help them, it’ll make you feel good too and you’ll run faster as a consequence.