The Mysterious World of Mental Training

AJW's TaproomOne of the most poignant memories I have of running the Western States 100 was during the 2013 race when I came upon my good friend Bryon Powell sitting on a rock off the side of the trail at mile 31. That year, Bryon took off from the starting line on a mission and for the first 20 or so miles ran within striking distance of the leaders. When I encountered him, he was in a bit of a low point.

“How’s it going, Bryon?” I asked.

“Okay, just trying to regroup,” he grunted back.

“C’mon with me, let’s run this downhill together.” And with that, Bryon hopped off the rock and we headed down the sweeping fire road toward the Little Bald Mountain Aid Station.

About five minutes later, Bryon said something I’ll never forget, “AJW, can you give me a grit transplant?”

Bryon and I had talked for years about the importance of grit in ultrarunning and I had already written extensively on the subject here on iRunFar and so I was a little surprised by Bryon’s comment. I replied, “Well, for me, grit is the key to success in these things.”

We ran along in silence for a few more minutes, enjoying the scenery and our company, but I could tell something was a little bit off about Bryon. After we stopped at the Millers Defeat Aid Station, I asked Bryon if he wanted to jump in with me for the next section and he just smiled and waved me on.

In the years since then, of course, Bryon has built up a significant reserve of grit as his strong finishes at the Hardrock 100 and other races attest, and I have to believe that there was something about that experience in 2013 that fueled him. Keep in mind, Bryon was already a highly experienced ultrarunner at the time with several top finishes at high-level races. It’s not that Bryon didn’t have the experience to deal with adversity at Western States that day, it’s just that the reserves weren’t there and eventually, albeit a full 48 miles after I left him, he dropped from the race.

Mental training is, from my perspective, one of the keys to success in long ultramarathons and it must be undertaken with deliberate intention. In my view, one aspect of appropriate mental training is frequently overlooked: we must practice being miserable.

There are no two ways about this one. At some point, and perhaps at many points 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 miserable, and not just in running but in the rest of your life as well. Here are some techniques that work:

  1. In the heat of summer, don’t turn on the air conditioning in your car or house. Many people do this while preparing for races in the heat but it can be good to do for any event in any conditions. Being in a hot, stuffy, confined environment is not pleasant and it will mimic some of what you will feel in an ultra.
  2. Run in clothes and with gear that are uncomfortable, too tight, and not appropriate for running. Load your pack with too much stuff, fill your bottles with warm water, and wear a shirt that intentionally leaves your shoulders uncovered so that the pack straps rub on your exposed skin. You are likely to experience some or all of these things in a race and they will wear you down mentally if you haven’t experienced them before.
  3. Before a long run six weeks or so ahead of your race, soak your shoes and socks in water and then put them on. After that, walk through a dusty, dirty section of trail and coat your feet with grit. After that, run 20 miles. During the run, pay attention to how your feet feel and where they hurt. Paying attention to foot pain in training will allow you to build a tolerance for it which will, in turn, allow you to ignore it in the race.
  4. In your daily life, practice making important decisions when you are fatigued because that’s what you’ll need to do in a race. Some athletes I know intentionally deprive themselves of sleep and then strive to live as normally as possible on as little sleep as possible for as long as possible. This can mimic the kind of conditions faced in a long ultra and allow you to keep a moderately clear head on race day because you’ve already rehearsed the situation.
  5. In the months leading up to the race, intentionally deprive yourself of some of life’s basic necessities once or twice a week. Some things to consider depriving yourself of are food, transportation, shelter, sugary drinks, alcohol, or your cell phone. Living without something that you use on a daily basis and that offers convenience and comfort will train your brain to deal with not having things when you want them and allow you to practice maintaining willpower.
  6. Finally, once a week or so, go for a training run at a time of day when you don’t want to run. This might be in the middle of the night, after a big lunch, or even instead of dinner. Running when you don’t want to in training will teach your brain that it’s okay to run then, which is certainly something you’ll experience in a long ultra.

So, back to Bryon and the 2013 Western States. As I look back now on that day five years ago, it is clear to me that the experience, as well as several others outside of running, have built up Bryon’s reserves of mental strength. Perhaps he used some of the techniques described above; I am not sure. But what I do know is that he took each new ultra experience he had as a way to grow and evolve, not only as a runner but as a business owner, friend, and person. That is one of the great gifts of our sport!

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

Everyone knows Bryon’s favorite beer is Yuengling Lager, which has been reviewed here in the Taproom before. But Yuengling also makes a great classic Black & Tan that is modeled after the traditional British half and half. That is our beer of the week this week in honor of Bryon. The Black & Tan combines Yuengling’s Dark Brewed Porter with their Premium Beer to produce a subtly balanced, wonderfully drinkable beer. It’s particularly quaffable on a crisp autumn evening.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Can you share a story about a particular running experience which instilled in you a lot of grit and tolerance for the tough times? What happened and how did you learn from it?
  • What about in life? Do life circumstances sometimes require a lot of grit? Do you have a story about something that happened in life that required toughness or that you used toughness to get through?

AJW and Bryon running together during the 2013 Western States 100. Photo: Michael Lebowitz

There are 20 comments

  1. Ryan

    I have found that the definition of grit has definitely changed for me as I get older. In my twenties, grit might have looked like hitting “the wall” at mile 20 and running faster to get through it, or running two-a-days in 90% humidity and 90 degree heat just because I wanted to see if I could. Currently in my late thirties grit has become more about dealing with random aches and pains, breaking out of routines to try something new in training, committing to an ultra training plan in the midst of work deadlines, and pushing the thought of those gritty and limber twenty somethings who are passing me to the back of my mind. I can only imagine what my forties and beyond will look like, and what level of grit it will take to get through those trials of miles. Here’s to hoping that I can stay upright and mobile long enough to figure out if I have what it takes.

  2. Markus

    Mental preparation for ultrarunning is different for different people.
    I would describe it as a creation of a mental framework for your race. You structure your race into different sections and think about would could happen at that time and find solutions for the possible problems. This kind of work can be done while mowing the lawn or washing the dishes or at your long weekend run.
    The more you have dealt with eventual shortcomings in a race beforehand the more you can tackle it while being in the race. From what I have seen, the most drops in longer ultras are not because the runners have real problems. The runners just choose to give up in a moment of discomfort. And that’s all what it usually is. As much discomfort as your fellow runner how keeps going. The difference is that the continuing runner knows that the discomfort will eventually end at the finish line and that discomfort is just part of ultrarunning and the pain of not finishing a race for no good reason will last a lot longer. Said that, there are also very good reasons to quit in a race when you are really injured. The wisdom is to know what is what.

    A great book I recommend is Travis Macy’s “The ultra mindset”
    Least but not least a quote from Yiannis Kouros: “My advice is that you should use your brains more and train less.“

  3. Benjamin Dicke

    Sometimes I’ll do my long runs on an intentionally small loop around a park. A 30 mile training run that takes 10-12 loops to complete is terrible. Especially if you make your car the aid station giving yourself an easy out after each loop. Not quitting then becomes the goal for the run.

  4. Bob C

    Train alone, including long runs, at least some of the time, because there will come a time in a race when you’re down and by yourself and you have to know how to cope with it and get out of the funk on your own.

  5. John Vanderpot

    Since fast is out of the question the grit part has been the main draw for me these past 7 yrs., and it’s amazing how many finish lines you can reach if you’re willing to train yourself to grindgrindgrind!

    The secret of my so-called success?

    Prior to ultrarunning I spent 35 yrs. in a wrestling room, which has been described as like trying to run a marathon on a hot day with an angry gorilla on your back, so maybe you get the idea?

    You boys look awfully young in that pic — you sure it’s only 5 yrs. ago?

    JV

  6. Michael Lebowitz

    I made this image because I knew that Bryon had invested in running this particular event. I was struck by the difference in energy that the image records. This was at 35 miles on a very hot day. The image shows to me, at least, both sides of the ultra experience the sense that the race is slipping away, and the determination that things are as they need to be in order to complete the journey. AJW captures the interior of the runner’s mindset in much of his writing and I think we are all better off for it, on the road, at the office, and especially in the places where we find our dreams. Happy that I am able to contribute.

  7. TK

    Great article. I’ve actually been doing this type of mental training lately to start prepping for winter and projects/races next year such as don’t use heat in your car on the way to work, keep heat very low in your house (<60 degrees f.), don't wear a jacket in temps you would otherwise, as long as its safe of course. Cold I think is harder to deal with than heat, so when it's time for warm temps it may seem not so bad.

  8. Sarah W

    Great ideas! You could also under dress for inclement weather this winter. You might get cold but if you wait it out at some point you’ll get really hot. So hot you’ll want to take all your clothes off. A near death experience is a sign of cultivating grit. That stuff doesn’t happen on accident you know.

  9. Michael J

    I have terrible mental fitness so I’ve had to develop a couple of tricks when my legs start screaming. 1. I pretend I’m running on water and if I stop I’ll drown. 2. I count my steps or repeat some kind of mantra as a mental blocker for less positive trains of thought. 3. I’ll start counting 10km = 1km (for some reason that works). 4. When all else fails I tell myself it’s not that far, it’s not that hot. it’s not that steep etc.

  10. Maxx A.

    Summary: Practice sabotaging your training to help yourself perform better on race day?

    Truthfully, the training and living misery is totally avoidable if you make predetermined decisions about how you will deal with adversity when it occurs. Instead of creating physical crises during a time you want to optimize training, it would be far more advantageous to visualize everything you can think of that might go wrong on race day and make a sound and rational plan about how to deal with it.

    1. AJW

      Thanks for the comment Maxx. I am not suggesting sabotaging one’s training, at all. Rather, what I have observed over the years is that many runners end up falling short of their race day goals when they end up in a place that is unfamilar, scary and strange. As such, I’ve found it helpful to practice being in such places prior to race day. Obviously, it doesn’t work for everyone but neither does running 100 miles!

      1. Maxx A.

        Thanks for the response AJW. Some of the suggestions in the article that are commonly practiced (like heat training) have a physiological purpose; however, others put runners at unnecessary risk and can have detrimental effects on training adaptation. I agree with you that many runners who fall short of their goals by having unrealistic expectations about how much the race is going to suck at some point, but developing strategies to deal with the suck typically overcomes this obstacle according to sports psychology research literature. If people are honest with themselves, we all have discomforts in life and training that we overcome daily. If we simply practice mindfulness of our personal daily triumphs over adversity, we don’t need to come up with artificial misery just to prove to ourselves that we can cope on race day. Thank you again for the discussion and thank you for all that you do for the sport; your wealth of experience in the sport that you so willingly share is virtually unparalleled!

  11. maria d

    I honestly thought this was a Halloween prank and was waiting for you to say “Gotcha!” at the end.
    Practice making important decisions when you are fatigued?? That’s like saying drive while you are under the influence. I am all for training the brain, but this list is just bonkers. Part of what makes running ultras fun is the training and if I had to do any of this just to cross a finish line, I’d run as far as possible in the other direction.

    1. AJW

      Hey Maria d, thanks for the comment. No, indeed, this is not a prank post, I save those for April. I truly believe that it is important to train your mind for success in long distance ultras and one way to do that is to practice making decisions while fatigued. Certainly these techniques are not for everyone but the mental strength required to complete long ultras takes practice, more than just physical training. And, practicing feeling miserable is part of what, in my view, allows people to break through to transcendent experiences in the sport. At some point in just about every training cycle or race, it ceases to be fun, and that is part of the beauty of it all.

  12. Jamie H.

    I think we can come up with a lot more of these suggestions:

    7. Smack all your toes with a hammer, wear shoes that are a size too small, and then go out for long hill repeats, focusing on hammering the downhills.

    8. Intentionally keep your eyes up off the trail in training so you can practice collecting yourself after a hard fall.

    9. Do a practice night run, but make sure not to charge your headlamp ahead of time.

    10. On your next long run, try a hairshirt without lube, and pretreat your crotch with some sandpaper.

    ;)

    1. AJW

      Andrew, thanks for the comment! Indeed I have read Hutchinson’s book and loved it, especially that section at the end to which you refer.

  13. Adam

    It’s been 9 years but still my most memorable GRITTY run was a 15 mile long run in high school. Had a stomach bug but just couldn’t skip the mileage. ALL the bowel movements hit at about mile 2 but I finished that run. Lost a pair of undies and a bit of love for fall season (for lack of natural TP) but I finished that run. To this day I’ve never been more uncomfortable during a run. Tons of gritting my teeth, checking my watch, complaining and contemplating what I was even doing.. but I learned that when sh*t (ha ha) gets tough, you can still grind through it.

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