Your Ultra-Training Bag Of Tricks: Head Games

Using mental tricks to find success in ultramarathons.

By on February 4, 2014 | Comments

Up until now, we’ve explored the tangible side of training. Concepts like incorporating speedwork to get faster, adding hill work to get stronger, or planning ahead to avoid race-day mishaps are some examples. However, there still remains one mysterious component for which the answers aren’t so black and white: the mind. The mind greatly influences performance both positively and negatively. Positive thoughts enable an athlete, while the opposite can ruin a race. The best racers know how to manage their inner voice by redirecting or quelling negative self-talk.

In order to better understand how the psyche can affect our running, I enlisted the help of sports psychologist, leadership consultant, and ultrarunner Dr. Stan Beecham. Beecham is the author of Elite Minds and has worked with numerous collegiate, Olympic, and professional athletes and teams. Here we’ll work through some of the most common and, unless managed, eventually destructive themes.

Second Guessing

In 2002, I registered for the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning. The goal was to complete something I’d never done before: finish four 100-mile races in one summer. When I recently read through my Grand Slam Dreams diary [broken link removed], it was evident that I thought I had bitten off more than I could chew. “Things seldom go as planned in the world of ultrarunning. Many mistakes, mishaps, and problems can and will arise. Could I possibly make it through four 100-mile races in a single summer? Could I possibly do the proper training for each of them and still remain healthy, happy, and motivated?”

It’s a scenario that resonates with many ultrarunners once they’ve committed the time and money to an event, but soon find themselves staring at what seems like an impossible task. Unless controlled, an accumulation of anxiety can have deleterious effects on the runner’s season.

“It doesn’t matter,” says Beecham. “You should be scared! What you’re getting ready to do is difficult and it frightens the crap out of you. But whatever you do, don’t let this feeling stop you! Your desire to do an ultra has nothing to do with running; it’s about your desire to take yourself to the edge.”

There’s a reason you didn’t register for a 10k or marathon. You’re looking for more. In his book, Beecham discusses the difference between the necessary, the possible, and the impossible. “When you are beginning a task, a day, a job, or even something that feels impossible, just do what you can. That’s what necessary means. Do the ‘have to’ stuff first; complete your to-do list.” For an ultrarunner, that’d be to go for a run.

Beecham continues, “Doing the necessary enables you to move to the next stage. It’s time to challenge yourself to see what you are truly capable of: the possible. You are not being asked to become something you are not; you are simply to become all that you already are. The possible requires your full attention, full commitment, and unwillingness to go backwards to the safety of necessary.”

At the end of each day, ask yourself if you’re doing all you can. Did your workout have a purpose and did you complete it in its entirety? Are you following a strengthening and flexibility routine? Have you been doing race-course recon? Are you researching and testing the appropriate gear and nutrition for your event? Are you getting enough sleep and eating well? If you can answer yes to most or all of these questions, then your apprehension should subside.

As you plan for what seems like a daunting event, you have the ability to achieve what seems impossible simply by committing to the possible. During my preparation for the Slam, I took one day at a time and focused on getting done all that I could. My time was not only filled with scheduled workouts, but also personal and professional commitments. Rather than expending energy worrying about the Slam, I ended each day satisfied, knowing that I’d done all that was possible, and arrived to the four start lines confident and prepared.

Giving Up When Injured

In 2000, I badly injured a hip flexor. Every day for five months, I put on my running clothes and attempted to run, but never made it past the mailbox. I couldn’t run, race, or do what I loved. My self-esteem and confidence waned.

Runners view injury as a game-ender, but they shouldn’t. “Don’t think of yourself as a runner,” says Beecham. “Think of yourself as an athlete.” An athlete is a person proficient in sports and physical exercise. If you can no longer run, change your game.

Beecham continues, “Don’t become fixated on what you can’t do. Stay active, push yourself in other ways, learn a new sport, and continue to compete. Do something that makes you feel good about yourself.”

Challenge yourself or others in the pool and at the gym. During my nearly half-year layoff from running, I turned to cycling and became proficient enough to join a team at the 24 Hours of Moab mountain biking event. Training for this allowed me to see new trails, stay fit, and accomplish new goals.

Pity Party

During last year’s Tahoe Rim Trail 100 Mile, I found myself quietly wishing a cougar would eat me or a rock would fall on my head. Anything would have been an improvement to the agony I was suffering in the dark at the 70-mile mark. I was plotting my escape to the closest road and car ride to my hotel room. I wasn’t anywhere near where I had hoped to be place-wise or time-wise, I felt like I had really blown it, and I wanted the race to end. I was smack dab in the middle of a long and dreadful pity party.

“It’s supposed to be hell,” exclaims Beecham. “If it were easy then everyone would be doing it. You’re attracted to the ultramarathon because of its challenge. When I go to a Thai restaurant and request my meal to be five-stars spicy, I’m asking for my mouth to burn like fire. You’re doing the same when you sign up for an ultra. You want it to be difficult.”

Beecham suggests that we look to other sports. For example, in football, basketball, golf, boxing, or soccer, each team or player wants his or her opponent to play well because it forces the other side to compete harder, better, and smarter. In an ultra, you may be competing against other runners or you may be competing against the course.

“In the end,” says Beecham, “any athlete who competes with the primary desire to be better than someone else—not better than their previous self—will never find their best. It is ultimately you whom you are competing against. The Latin root of the word ‘contest’ means, ‘to testify with or to make a promise with.’ Imagine if every time you entered a contest the promise you made to yourself was to do your best.”

It’s a mistake to believe that getting to the end of an ultra will be undemanding. Beecham recommends, “You must prepare yourself beforehand for how difficult this race will get. Make the decision before you start as to what your actions will be once it gets tough. Remember you chose this.”

Back at Tahoe, I remembered that I had sworn in advance that I would finish, even if my other goals were unattainable. So I stopped feeling sorry for myself, took a nap, ate some food, and ran the last 20 miles to the finish.


The games we play in our heads are complicated. The circumstances we’re confronted with during a long training block or a race are wicked. The choices we have to make aren’t easy.

“No matter how desperate your situation may be,” says Beecham, “there is always something you can do. The more difficult the situation, the more challenging it is to recognize what options or choice one has. But remember that you always have a choice.”

It’s only natural to doubt our ability or lament our predicament when faced with adversity. We all know that the easiest and quickest way out is to pull the plug. However, before abandoning your goal, consider your other options. This may be all you need to continue forward. Don’t quit simply because you can.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What head games do you play with yourself when things start to get hard?
  • Have you found yourself in a running pity party? If so, how did you escape it and move on?
Ian Torrence

Ian Torrence has more than 12 years of experience coaching runners of all levels. Ian has completed more than 220 ultramarathons, with 50+ wins, since his first ultra finish at the 1994 JFK 50 Mile. Ian and his wife, Emily, are online coaches at Sundog Running. Information about his coaching services can be found at