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The Mental Game of Running

This question has popped up a few times this past week. It seems worthwhile to jot down a few thoughts about this topic. How do you improve your mental game in running?

I do not consider myself the most qualified to answer this question. But considering I have done a few races of variety over the past six years, there are a few things I have learnt along the way that might be worth sharing. Take these with a grain of salt, not as statements of biblical importance.

With any worthwhile pursuit, there is the physical side which you can use your senses to detect, recognise and measure, and there is the mental side which seems more invisible. The good news is with training, you can learn to recognise the signs associated with the mental side that allow you to fine tune your performance or change the course of action accordingly.

Physical training is hard and takes time. It has taken six years of constant running to get a feeble body like mine to this stage where it is half fit to tackle some longer races. Of course, everyone is different. I started running late in life and was probably in the bottom percentile in terms of fitness in my age group. You could have got there a lot faster.

Mental training is a lot harder. While you can observe the physical side generally improving over time with training, mental fitness can seem to take a step forward, then take two steps backward. If you are not on top of what is going on, you can easily become frustrated and start to develop unhealthy mental habits.

Let’s unpack these two sides of training for races at a marathon distance or longer.

The purpose of physical training is generally about getting you to run faster over longer, with faster recovery between races. So it comes down to three performance factors: Speed, Endurance and Recovery. Most runners in their entire lives do not manage to build up fitness in all three categories. Let’s look at a slow runner who can complete a 100 miler and feels like they can only do one of those a year. Let’s remove external factors like availability of time and resources from our consideration. Such a runner probably has a high level of Endurance fitness, probably coming from a hiking background, but takes a long time to recover from such a long event. Take another runner who runs a long event every other week and keeps backing up year after year. Such a runner does not only have good Endurance fitness but also have good Recovery. Speed for such a runner might organically improve over time as a general function of fitness, but she will reach a point where this organic improvement plateaus. To get more competitive, she will need targeted training. Most top runners have developed both excellent Speed and Endurance fitness, and might have quite decent Recovery. However, running fast races puts such a heavy load on the body that complete recovery might take weeks or months rather than days or weeks. It is just simple physiology. We are all humans! It is very rare to see runners who have demonstrated all three dimensions of fitness with longevity. They tend not to be in the top bracket of athletes, probably a tier below. They might do up to a dozen fast races a year and finish in the top ten in most of them. Running races at a slightly slower pace puts less toll on their bodies, allowing them to be competitive more often.

As physical training is something we can see, touch and measure, there is so much material out there to help you achieve your physical goals. It is just a matter of putting your head down and doing the work.

But mental training is not so simple.

Athletes often say, “I started the race with the right headspace”. Over a marathon distance, a runner only needs to stay in that headspace for a couple of hours. When issues such as injuries pop up, of course there will be interference to that headspace and the challenge for the runner then is to deal with these issues positively to get back to that headspace as quickly as possible. Over a two hundred miler or a 48-hour/6-day track race, it is almost guaranteed that there will be issues, not only once but many times, and thus the challenge to stay in that headspace becomes much greater.

Over the years, I have recognised myself to be mentally quite soft (no false modesty here) compared to many runners I have come across. Yet I have managed to complete all races bar two. It goes to show that ultra-running is not strictly a playground for the mentally tough. Seriously, if I can complete these races, anyone can! However, there are a few fundamentals we need to get right.

Starting the race positively is of immense importance. By positively, I am referring to the necessary mental preparation to ensure that: (1) I can visualise the finish line and can see that I finish the race off strongly, and (2) I allow for bonus miles on top of the published distance.

(1) is quite interesting. In the only two races I DNF’d, a 100km in Sapa, Vietnam, and a miler at You Yangs last year, I had come into both races with either a back injury (Sapa) or a fever (You Yangs), and I had been uncertain at the get-go whether I would finish. I am sure that if I had “decided” before these races that I would finish, then at least one of these results would have been different. At my first 200 miler in Tahoe last year, I never doubted my finish even though the enormity of the challenge was obvious. In fact, from the starting gun onwards, Homewood remained a sticky magnet in my mind. All of my gestures were zooming in on Homewood, on getting down that never-ending steep slope towards the famous blue arch at the finish, ideally at sunrise. When I was about halfway and could almost spot the location of Homewood through squinted eyes from the other side of the lake, I even took a selfie pointing back at Homewood and sent to Andy. And guess what, two days later, I did come down that never-ending steep slope towards the famous blue arch at the finish, just when the sun was about to rise! For some reason, I did not start Delirious with the same headspace. Perhaps I was too chilled about it all. That was a mistake. The first three days were a series of things after things gone wrong. The first challenge was getting through the odd marathon distance during the first night quite mal-nutritioned. By dawn, my stomach started to revolt, and I found it impossible to hold any food down. Mentally I became quite weary. By noon, after it had taken me nearly an hour going up and down a steep hill a few times to locate an aid station that had moved from the original plan, I decided there and then that I would pull out of the race. But such a decision, even though I was adamant at the time was the right logical decision, did not *feel* right. It came with a feeling of self-disgust. It felt very uncertain. That feeling was an alarm bell for me, because with age, I had learnt to trust my feelings and doubt my own thoughts. I came into the aid station feeling empty. The ever lovely and kind Raquel Rae gave me some tasty dahl and a ginger beer. I had been dying for some cold ginger beer for a whole day. The weather had been hotter than expected, and runners would have paid anything for a cold drink. This first drink aided my mental state immensely. I hoped that the two serves of dahl would stay down, as I was starting to feel weak due to malnutrition. I sat at the aid station, staring into blank space for about 10-15 minutes. Then I became quite angry with myself. I realised that if I would pull out then and there, I would finish the race on a negative note. I would be completing a potentially wonderful adventure on a blaming note, most of all self blaming. And that would not be a good outcome for this race, and the few tougher races that I had lined up for this year. And I made a firm decision, then and there, that I would get to Walpole, get a good sleep, and finish the bloody race off. On the section to Walpole, I threw up again. My stomach was empty, but this time refreshingly so, as I was no longer defeated mentally. I knew I would get to Walpole then finish off the race. My real race was only just about to begin. From Walpole on, my heart began to sing, and my race kept getting better and better, despite a mentally draining slugfest over the hot sandy hills on the third day. I felt stronger and stronger throughout the fourth day, running heaps with Andy, and on the finish line, I was still feeling reasonably fresh. Physically I had been struggling big time, but the mental game had got me over the line.

I needed to learn (2) the hard way. The Great Ocean Road marathon is 44kms. However, at the exact marathon distance, there is also a timer belt. At my first run here, I made a rookie mistake of switching off mentally at this point. Guess what, I could not bring myself to running out the final 2kms; I walked all the way to the finish. Needless to say, I did not feel happy with myself after the race. From this race on, I have always been allowing for bonus miles for races. If it is a marathon, I would be mentally prepared for 50km. If it is a 200 miler, I would be mentally prepared for 400km. After all, race directors are a cheeky bunch. You cannot really trust them at getting the distance right (🤣). I actually got (2) perfectly for Delirious, so despite about 15-20 bonus kilometres earned at different times, it did not affect my mental side one bit.

In my meditation practice, I have learnt to recognise that mind and body are one, not two. While it is difficult to “influence” the mind directly (after all there is nothing there to be influenced!), it is certainly possible to influence the mind through the physical body. I have learnt that when the mind is hazy, confused and feels defeated, a good rest can go a long way. There is nothing wrong with bursting into tears either. I know a few runners who do not really start racing until after their first cry. So I kind of look forward to seeing them get their tears out of their way early in the race, just so that they can fully settle into their rhythm 🙂 So I have learnt to look after my body, and know that the mind will look after itself.

Many athletes think of their Why when they really struggle mentally. People’s Whys can be vastly different. My Why is simple. Running, like other important pursuits in my life, is a playground for me to realise my potential in life. Every time I perform under my ability, I would have wasted a potential opportunity, whether it is a 5km parkrun, or a longer trickier race. This Why has kept me going for six years. As I am nowhere near my potential, it probably will keep me going for many more years. One’s Why could evolve over the years, as the runner finds her feet in this interesting caper, but finding this Why is a big part of the mental game.

I firmly believe that mental training needs to come from repeated practice. We are different individuals, and our emotional triggers are so different. There is only so far inspirational quotes and wise words can get us, but when the proverbial hits the fan, that is when our mental side gets a good workout. Every time you get through these challenges, you have gained a wonderful insight into yourself, and have probably become stronger mentally. What does not kill you makes you stronger.