It’s All in the Mind

AJW's TaproomThis is the time of year when I am often approached by newer runners interested in training and racing secrets. Most of the time, these are well-meaning folks who find themselves in the midst of training for a big summer race and are feeling a bit in over their heads. In a mild state of panic, these runners are simply seeking a little reassurance that everything will be okay. And, the truth is, everything will, indeed, be okay. Yet, when I reflect on my earlier running career, I realize that most of the time that everything’s-gonna’-be-okay attitude is more a mind game than anything and it brings me back to the importance of training the mind as much as the body.

In my experience, both participating in and in spectating ultramarathons, I have seen many people more than adequately prepared physically for the challenge but, for whatever reason, these same people were unprepared mentally. In observing these people, it is often some version of a lack of will or motivation that thwarts their effort and leaves them wondering why,

“My legs felt great. It’s just that for some reason I just lost the will to run,” said a friend of mine several years ago at the Dusty Corners (mile 38) aid station at the Western States 100.

This is a refrain I’ve heard often over the years from countless physically capable runners. It can be a debilitating refrain yet one that I believe can be avoided and even defeated. It just takes practice.

Developing mental fortitude takes time and conscious effort. Sure, there are some people who are simply born with more persistence and resilience than others but I also know for a fact that these critical skills can be learned and developed through deliberate practice and direct experience. The problem is, many of us who get caught up in the physical preparation for a big race neglect the mental preparation. We simply forget to mind our minds. And when that happens, all the physical training in the world simply flies out the window.

Going into a big ultra, it is essential for us to prepare our minds for the inevitable pain and suffering that awaits us. Regardless of physical prowess, sensible pacing, and rock-star support, at some point along the way we are going to be stretched to the limits of our working minds, we are going to confront the demons of the DNF, and we are going to need to fight our mind’s desire to seek comfort. In order to understand this feeling, it helps to have experienced it before and overcome it. However, if that has not happened, it is essential for the successful runner to face that obstacle head on and have the will to bring it down. Essentially, it requires coming to grips with the inevitability of hopelessness and pushing beyond it.

That, ultimately, is one of running’s greatest lessons. Even if you’ve never had any interest in running a race, if you are a long-distance runner, you’ve inevitably faced some kind of inner demon calling on you to stop, or hit the snooze button and stay in bed, or just decide you’ve had enough. And yet the daily grind of running, that pull that gets us out the door every morning, can provide a powerful mental toolkit for success. The discipline, focus, and deliberate practice of a life on the run makes us powerful and strong physically but even more so, mentally, it makes us complete, and provides us with the means to just keep moving on. Most of the time, that is all we need to do.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Lagunitas Brewing Company in Petaluma, California. A long-time Taproom favorite, Lagunitas has recently begun distributing nationally their popular Undercover Investigation Shut-Down IPA. This beer, originally created during a government shutdown several years ago, gained a cult following among beer aficionados over the years and is now, once and for all, available across the country.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Does your mind ever beat your body?
  • How do you convince your mind to do the very hardest things you want to do in life and in running?
  • What is to be gained—or lost—out of pushing the mind quite hard?

There are 7 comments

  1. DRB

    Love this. The words of AJW are always inspiring and useful. I haven’t been able to run in over a year now after injury, instead turning to cycling. And yet, his words are as meaningful to me as ever. Plus, I love the weekly beer recommendations! Keep up the great work.

  2. Jamie

    Good stuff AJW. … As I prepare to line up at the most hyped, competitive ultra I’ve ever been in, I have been thinking there’s another side of mental strength that I am going to need. I know I’ll need persistence, toughness, calmness, etc., when things get hard, but I’ve also been trying to practice the mindset I need from the starting line until (hopefully) fairly late in the race: self control, keeping the ego in check, blocking out everything telling me to catch those people up ahead or run faster splits, knowing how to stay in my own best race. We often put that down as smart pacing, but I think it takes real mental strength. Until the wheels start to come off, resisting the urge to GO can be as hard as resisting the urge to stop.

    1. Cary Stephens

      Jamie, share your thoughts 100%. I find it easier to keep going against all odd than to control my early (or mid race) pace. While I no longer use this trick, I used to listen to slow calm music early in long races in order to help me control my pace and ego.

  3. andy mcbreen

    Spot on Andy, I’m doing My 40th ultra on June 14th , Which will be self supported. I know from experience that before and during these events, I would remind Myself that I am going to finish this and go for whatever time goal I was aiming for. When I forgot to remind Myself to finish and go for a specific time, My race would end in a D.N.F. I know this sounds like common sense, But like You said, these thoughts have to be put into practice.

  4. Emilio Romero

    “Going into a big ultra, it is essential for us to prepare our minds for the inevitable pain and suffering that awaits us. Regardless of physical prowess, sensible pacing, and rock-star support, at some point along the way we are going to be stretched to the limits of our working minds, we are going to confront the demons of the DNF, and we are going to need to fight our mind’s desire to seek comfort. In order to understand this feeling, it helps to have experienced it before and overcome it. However, if that has not happened, it is essential for the successful runner to face that obstacle head on and have the will to bring it down. Essentially, it requires coming to grips with the inevitability of hopelessness and pushing beyond it.”
    This is probably the most accurate description I’ve ever read concerning the matter. Kudos AJ!

Post Your Thoughts