Building Mental Toughness for Your Next Ultra

In my latest ultra – The North Face Malaysian Mountain Trail Festival, I ran the 55km race which involved a climb over the giant mountain of Maxwell Hill in Taiping, Malaysia. The 55km route featured a giant climb with a whopping 1200m elevation gain at one go. It was a relentless climb mostly up all the way to the peak of Maxwell Hill. I remember vividly the difficulty of powering up the mountain trail step by step. I wasn’t even running and I couldn’t even if I wanted to due to the steepness.

The North Face MMTF 55km Elevation Profile – Not for the faint hearted

It was hard and the suffering was real. The climb was a never ending torture. My quads screamed every step I took. I was like moving in slow motion. Progress was painstakingly slow as my muscles were beyond tired. I would have bailed out if I can be somehow rescued and transported to the finishing line. That wouldn’t be possible in the jungle and giving up means walking all the way out, which is what I am doing anyway. So I soldiered on without a choice.

Long story short, I eventually reached the peak, took a 15 seconds breather and started running down the hill as the trail switch to tarmac. The descent took us through a service road all the way down to the bottom of the hill. Surprisingly I was able to actually run down despite coming close to almost giving up a few minutes earlier. My legs were not as wasted as I thought it was. My quads now seems fine with just a tinge of soreness but nothing major.

This made me realised that my physical ability was not the limiting factor to my performance on that way up the mountain. My mental toughness was equally, if not, more important in determining whether I carried on to the finishing line. My mind kept telling me that I had enough and maybe I should just throw in the towel. It kept suggesting to me that my legs had had enough and they would give up any minute.

Post-race I started reading up on the mental aspect of trail racing. I found out that performing to your best in an ultra-race depends more than physical ability. It is also suggested that the longer the race, the more mental (and less physical) it becomes. The most successful competitors at a long distance race are often not the quickest but those who are able to keep on going when the going gets really tough. Looking back and judging from my personal experience, I believe this to be true.

In an ultra-distance race, you would have undoubtedly trained hard physically and built a good running base to your best ability. What we often missed is training and preparing our minds for what is to come. Ultras, especially the trail ones, come with whole lots of challenges like steep climbs and drops, rugged terrains, thick vegetation and sometimes scorching heat, on top of the longer than marathon distance to be covered. In some races, you will race through the night, struggle in the dark, cross muddy rivers and if you are lucky, get pounded by the rain. Sleep deprivation and tired muscles make it even tougher on you mentally. What differentiates those who do well is their mental strength and the ability to deal with the lows. Many drop-offs in long distances race do not come from injuries or an unbearable source of pain. Rather they come from within the runner, slowly talking themselves out of the race.

So, what is mental toughness and how can you build mental strength?

Mental toughness is an important skill for an ultra-runner. Mental toughness is less of a talent than it is a skill. The good news is that it is something that can be learned and improved. However it should be an ongoing practice which must be cultivated over time. You are never done in developing the mental toughness just like you are never done with workouts, long runs or recovery runs in your training. Your mental toughness can grow or whither depending on your training.

The toughest part of mental toughness is the positivity. It is the undying believe of your ability to give your best effort despite any setbacks encountered along the way. Staying positive is the important element of mental toughness. It means that the little voice in your head is your cheer leader and not your critic.

Mental toughness is not grimacing, clenching your teeth or beating your chest before a race. This is putting on a mask to conceal insecurity. Real toughness is the ability to stay mentally engaged in a race and giving it your all. Real toughness is staying positive when it starts to hurt and finishing strong despite the challenges ahead. Race conditions may not be ideal and things can go all wrong but you are still going to stay positive and calm and focus on producing a peak performance in yourself.

Runners without high level of mental toughness are going succumb to distraction, imperfect race conditions, inconveniences and feeling of discomfort that comes with ultra-running. Mental toughness, in my opinion, is one of the keys to success in long ultra-races. There is no shortcut to get there and mental training is one to be undertaken with deliberate intention.

From my research I have read that mental toughness is about how you would respond when you begin to feel uncomfortable or encounter a challenge. At the core, there are two key factors that contribute to mental toughness: willingness and optimism.

Willingness – refers to how inclined you are to endure, whether in accepting intensity on a physical level, or being determined to maintain your effort level across a given time or distance. Willingness is having the self-determination to stay in the experience without backing down or giving up.

Optimism – on the other hand, is a positive belief about a future state or desired outcome. Optimism helps you bridge the gap between what you are currently doing and how that relates to achieving your goals. Believing that your current effort will help you become stronger, fitter, and faster aids your willingness to maintain that effort during training.

I would add a third factor to precede willingness and optimism, and that is preparedness.

Preparedness – is the work you put in to train your mental toughness and making sure that you are in the best possible readiness long before the race. It is the effort you put in day in day out as you build your confidence to tackle the challenges ahead.

Let’s look at some of the ways mental toughness can be cultivated and how you can prepare yourself sustainably.

The first thing that you have to understand is mental toughness training is an ongoing practice that must be cultivated over time. Just like consistency is the secret sauce to successful running, training your mental toughness requires consistency as well. To develop mental toughness you have to be ready to simulate difficult situations that are going to test you. Your training should incorporate a certain amount of physical and mental suffering, which will prepare you for race day.

In short, we must practice being miserable. There is no escaping this one. Think about it, at many point during a long ultra, you will feel miserable. You will likely be in pain and want to stop. The only way to prepare for this is to practice being and overcoming miserableness.

Here are 10 ways you can incorporate “misery” into your life by training to get stronger mentally and physically at once:

  1. Set the alarm and get up really early to train. It may be 5 or 3am depending on the distance you want to cover. Getting up from the comfort of your bed is tough. If you are able to overcome the snooze button and walk out the door to run again and again, that is evidence of your mind conquering your body.  
  2. Stick to your training plan and schedule even when you do don’t feel like it. Making yourself complete it against your will is a good way to master over negative thoughts and excuses not to train. Feeling mentally drained after a long day at work? Good, all the more you should practice overcoming the weariness and train. Mental toughness is the grit to train when you don’t want to.
  3.  Train with elevations. Unlike road races, most trail ones come with drastic elevation changes and uneven terrains. Running and climbing up hills with steep incline sucks. There are no shortcuts. The only way to get used to climbing and running on uneven rough terrain is by doing it, loads of it. So try to hit the trails as much as you can. Go for steep incline repetitions. Yes, make the session as miserable as it can be. You will be grateful later.
  4. Train when you are hungry. Put in a session first thing in the morning before you eat anything. Stretch the session longer and deprive yourself more as you progress. Teach yourself to run without fuel in your stomach and even with limited water supply. That way if you are beginning to bonk but still far from the next checkpoint, your mind will be ready to handle the remaining distance with an empty stomach.
  5. Simulate race condition and train with the elements. Go out and run in the middle of the day under intense heat. Hydrate yourself well and be generous with the sunscreen. Run in the rain. Get used to being drenched and running in soaking wet shoes. Some ultras takes you through the night, so go deprive yourself of sleep and try running throughout the night. It takes actual experiences and a certain amount of repetition for you to be mentally prepared for it.
  6. Remind yourself to remember why you are running in the first place. List down your rational for finishing each training and race. A strong list of why will help you to combat the inevitable negativity that may confront you. Practice positive self-talk. In the midst of your hardship, you will need to tell yourself to keep moving when all you want to do is stop. Speak to yourself even during trainings. Find out what mantra works for you and practice using it.
  7. Sign up and run races. Racing is perhaps the most stressful thing we do as runners and the repeated exposure to stress and challenges help us build coping strategies and mental toughness. Increase your race difficulties in terms of distance and elevation progressively but in a sustainable manner. Make sure you are training for the progression and allocate enough base building and resting time in between races.
  8. Run hard workouts. Get into the anaerobic zones. Just like with racing, a good hard workout is a source of stress you must regularly experience. It is no point doing easy runs after easy runs without putting your body to a new level of fitness. The weekly high mileage might just be purposeless junk miles. Without getting comfortable of being uncomfortable we will not be able to build mental toughness.
  9. Commit to the execution of progressively more challenging training over the course of years. Meaning you should strive to improve your ability consistently over the long run. Do not stay in your comfort zone or continue with easy workouts. Focus on the process of training year after year with a clear understanding of what you want to achieve. Be patient. Patient to respect the process and to train intelligently.
  10. If you are side-lined by injury, mental toughness is about proactively and successfully managing the injury that may take weeks or months to heel. Do not focus on the setback and inconvenience of being injured and feel sorry for yourself. Approach your injury rehab in the same zeal that you have for training. It is the humility to know that you cannot take shortcuts and work is the only sustainable way to achieve your goals.

As you can now probably deduce, the mind and body are interlinked. You will struggle to complete your big race without having both in shape. Just because you can physically run a certain distance, it does not mean you will unless your mind is prepared to push your body. But if you are physically not fit enough or have never accomplished near a race distance or elevation, no amount of mental power can force your legs and lungs to take you to the finish line. One without the other means you are setting yourself up to fail.