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7 things you can work on to develop your mental toughness

Can you cross-train your way to completing a 95mi trail running ultramarathon? (pt.5)


“My mental preparation for taking on such a challenge is just as important as my physical preparation”, Eluid Kipchoge


In 1991 Michael Joyner calculated the speed required to complete a sub 2hr marathon (21.0975 km/h) could be achieved with a VO2max of 76.9 ml·kg1·min, a lactate threshold (LT) of 81% VO2max, and a running economy (RE) of 175 ml·kg1·km1.


28 years later Eliud Kipchoge (with the help and support of Ineos and some rather nifty Nike trainers) turned the theory into reality with a 1:59:40 marathon. On 12th October 2019, on a perfectly still and cool morning in Vienna, Eliud, an experienced marathoner with a VO2max, LT and RE closely matching the requisite thresholds stepped up to the starting line.


Old news I know. But it was a recent piece of content that caught my eye, giving clues as to Eluid’s mindset and mental preparation for that challenge - as he said an equally important component of his training. It particularly caught my eye as many of his comments closely matched the elements of mental preparation I’ve researched and practiced.


My previous articles have been littered with references to ‘mental toughness’ and ‘mental skills’; the psychology of sport. I mentioned I’d cover it in more detail - and this seems like the perfect time.


Mental skills meets training camp


Today, Friday 14th April, is just 6 weeks out from the race. It’s also the start of my 3 day, 15 hour cross-training camp; the first true test of accumulated physical fitness and muscular endurance. However I foresee the mental element of the challenge being the toughest; 5hrs of 400m laps of a track and 10hrs split across the Bike and Ski Ergs. Most definitely not my happy place! Rather that’s on the trails, in the hills and mountains. So this format will certainly test the mental skills I’ve been practicing over the course of weeks and months.


First off, let’s define mental toughness in the context of ultra running. Essentially it’s the ability to persevere in the face of adversity, push beyond your limits and to stay focused on the task at hand despite all the physical and emotional challenges an ultramarathon will throw at you. It’s pushing through pain, exhaustion, setbacks and mental fatigue. It’s what keeps you moving forward even when your body (and mind) is telling you to stop. It’s possibly the one thing that makes the difference between finishing and DNF’ing.


Whilst no research study has put a definitive figure to the contribution of mental toughness on performance, many have found that athletes who scored higher in mental toughness were more likely to finish the race than those with lower scores. Those actually in the sport think mental toughness could contribute as much as 80% to performance and as mentioned above, if it’s as equally important as the physical preparation to the world’s first and only sub-2hr marathoner…we should be taking it seriously.


Just like the miles and hours of physical training we accumulate over a long period, we should also practice and develop our mental skills too - periodised over the same timescales. With that said, what are those mental skills we should be training to develop our mental toughness?


From my research I’d broadly categorise them as:


Motivation

The strong underlying reason for WHY you are doing what you are doing. This is the foundation of your mental toughness. Start here and define your WHY. Soul-search and spend time crafting it. Constantly refer back to it when; you’re struggling to get up at 6am for a training run in the cold and wet, when you’re curtailing a social engagement or when everything hurts at mile 80 during a race. Also recognise your WHY is dynamic, it will likely change over time as you and your experiences change. So keep going back to it and understand what's driving you now?


Kipchoge’s wisdom

“This is not just about myself but it is about inspiring others and instilling in people a belief that nothing is impossible”


As a daily reminder of this, a poster by his bed reads:


‘Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once was despair’, Nelson Mandela


Self-belief and Confidence

Firstly, remember, we wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t think we could. A technique to help build confidence is to set yourself lots of little goals in training. Each one ticked off will boost your confidence and provide material you can draw on when needed. Also, remember your successes and past experiences; running or otherwise. Remember that time you felt awful at mile 60 of 100, thought about bailing out, walked for an hour, but somehow found new legs and brought home a finish. Spend time reflecting on all of these moments in the preparation phase of your training to reinforce your self-belief. And when the going gets tough during an event, reflect on them again!


Kipchoge’s wisdom

“I believe because of my rich experiences in Monza I am in a much better position to run 26 seconds quicker and make history”, “I believe I can go beyond what other people think”. “No human is limited”


Presence

Is learning to be in the moment. Creating a state of flow. Opening awareness to your thoughts and feelings as you experience them, and then accepting them. Really focusing on how you are running and feeling. You might focus on your breathing - what is that telling you? Can you speed up or should you slow down? You might focus on the aches and pains you have. Get curious about them, follow their path. What are they telling you? Accept them, embrace them, then let them go. Things will happen during a long race, maybe your watch will run out of battery. Listen to your thoughts, the frustration, the despair, the ‘what will I do now?’. Invite them in. Accept the new now. And move on. This is the practice of mIndfulness. Quite a buzzword in ultrarunning at the moment and I encourage you to find out more about it. Then on every run, practice, practice, practice.


Kipchoge’s wisdom

Referring to the 8-day window for the attempt, he said “I will need to have a flexible mindset”


As for the training overall he’d, “take things day by day”


Emotional regulation

Managing your mental energy appropriately. Arousal control; in response to events, changes in mood or at stages of training/within a race. With adrenaline pumping we can get carried away at the beginning of a training run or race and push out too strongly. Indeed we can start getting too worked up in the weeks leading up to a race. We can beat ourselves up/get angry because of a wrong turn, a trip/or fall, the weather, the conditions underfoot, a missed split time…the list goes on. These are all a drain on our energy reserves. Learn to down-regulate your emotions during these times.


Equally, perhaps we can be a bit too relaxed on a tough climb or pull back as energy levels/moods dip, when competitors start passing you - these are situations we want to up-regulate our emotions. Gee ourselves up with some positive self-talk. Get the adrenaline pumping and bring our mind back into the game.


Kipchoge’s wisdom

“There is a lot of expectation around the event. There is a lot of pressure…the best way for me to cope with the expectation is to keep things simple and normal”


Self-talk

Using positive words/statements to keep moving you forward if experiencing negativity or setbacks. This could be a mantra you repeat regularly as you train and race. Write it down (maybe on the back of your hand or piece of paper) and refer to it often. Crucially you need to test it in training. Does it actually work for you and have the desired effect?


Another element of self-talk to practice is diffusing any negative self-talk. When you start to find yourself saying things like; ‘this is too hard’, ‘I can’t do this’, ‘I’ll never get to the next checkpoint’ etc. you need to intervene. This is where you bring your mindfulness skills in - focussing yourself back on the present, accepting the situation you are in and moving on.


Kipchoge’s wisdom

“...you can talk to your mind and then your mind will control if you are successful”, “I need to talk to myself that this is possible”


Imagery

This is a chance to bring out your inner Scorsese and make movies in your mind; the good, the bad and the ugly. The default for most is to visualise the glory moments; the red carpet showboating to the finish line, the rapturous applause of the spectators, the dream of a podium finish, the feeling of accomplishment, the Strava kudos and achievements etc. For me, it’s the beer when it’s all done. And there’s absolutely a place for that type of imagery. Particularly during a race or tough training runs - to keep you moving step by step to the finish, to keep you training day after day, week after week.


But a more powerful and useful technique, in the months pre-race, is to analyse and mentally rehearse key sections of a race where or when you might encounter difficulties. Get creative here, make these into full-on 1970’s style disaster movies; imagine the worst case scenarios and how you heroically get through each hardship or problem. Be aware too of the feelings these imagined encounters engender and how you react to those. In reality it's not likely to get half as bad as you can imagine, but if you've already imagined overcoming the worst of problems and rehearsed the escape routes, you’ll know exactly what to do and won’t panic on the day.


Kipchoge’s wisdom

“In my heart and mind I’ve analysed and visualised breaking two hours”


Focus

The ability to switch your focus to the things you need to do in the moment. Controlling the controllable. There are 4 dimensions you can control, firstly the internal narrow vs internal broad dimensions, e.g. you’d benefit from shifting focus from that nagging sore foot (narrow) to the overall feeling of freshness & strength you possess (broad). Then there’s the external narrow vs external broad dimensions, e.g. you’d benefit from shifting focus from the oppressive heat of the day (broad) to just getting up the hill that’s opening out in front of you (narrow).


There are various associative and dissociative techniques you can use to help here. Associative techniques would have you focussing inwards and on the task at hand; e.g. conducting a ‘body scan’ from head to toe, focussing on your running technique or watch metrics. Whilst dissociative techniques take you away from what you are doing; plugging your headphones in (a podcast is a winner here), talking to fellow runners, counting back from 1000, repeating that mantra you’ve developed or getting very curious about and focussing on features in the landscape you’re running towards.


I’ll be pulling on all these techniques as my training camp unfolds. Not only to keep me moving throughout it, but as further practice in the art of developing mental toughness. If any of this sounds like something you’d like to learn more about; come and join RUN3SIXTY for a run one evening.

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