Running ultra distances requires immense physical training, and mental training too. Being mental prepared for the challenges you’ll face during a race is just as important as the physical ones, and could make or break your race.
In this post we explore the mental challenge of dealing with discomfort when running in ultra, and how to deal with it. This post is adapted from ultra runner Addie Bracy’s book, Mental Training for Ultrarunning.
Getting comfortable with discomfort
Nobody enters a 50-mile (80 km) race with the expectation of an absence of pain. We do so with a curiosity of how much we can handle and to see whether we are tougher than the terrain or the distance. Even though we leave the start line knowing that we are guaranteed to experience some discomfort, it can still be difficult to tolerate, especially the longer the race goes on. At times, even the most experienced athletes question whether they can do it. Just because being uncomfortable is an expected aspect of ultrarunning doesn’t mean you should show up unprepared. As important as it is to train for the physical demands of the competition, readying yourself for the mental and emotional toll of sustained discomfort is equally important.
“Make friends with pain and you’ll never be alone”Ken Chlouber
When it comes to knowing what you can handle, previous experience is a reliable source. Familiarity with your body is an important factor in distinguishing between extreme discomfort and pain that signals a potential injury. The more training and racing experience you get, the more you’ll be able to discern between normal and abnormal levels of pain. You’ll also be better at identifying the sources of discomfort and potentially alleviating symptoms based on the cause.
When you think back to previous DNFs or bad races, they were probably caused by circumstances that expanded beyond normal discomfort—things like blisters, severe dehydration, hyperthermia, or fueling fails. For the most part, those are all within your control, and many circumstances are avoidable with adequate preparation. By learning from mistakes and making better nutrition and gear choices, many of those unpleasant physical experiences can be mitigated.
Mental skills training activity: dealing with discomfort
Think about your last race or long training run. Recall some of the discomfort you faced, and try to identify the cause. Highlight some of the issues that were within your control. Be specific about what happened, and identify specific and detailed actions that you will take. Use this self-reflection to be better prepared for next time. Consider the questions below:
- What happened? (Example: During my last 50K race, I had a lot of issues with my nutrition plan. I got nauseous during the second half of the race and had a hard time continuing to take in fluids and calories. I just stopped eating and drinking and I ended up bonking, eventually being reduced to a slow walk over the last several miles.)
- Why did it happen? (Example: I didn’t practice nutrition very often in my long training runs so I didn’t quite know what to expect in the race. I also forgot to pack my hydration mix and just ended up using what the race had at aid stations. I had never tried the brand before and it didn’t sit well in my stomach.)
- How can you do better in the future? (Example: Practice different kinds of fueling strategies during long runs to see what works and what doesn’t work. Based on that feedback, make a nutrition strategy and stick to it. Also, I need to accept that some stomach discomfort is possible and that I need to continue to eat and drink even if I don’t want to.)
Addie Bracey recommends making a habit of reflecting on past big training days and races to highlight lessons learned. Try to figure out why you felt the way you did and what you could do better in the future.
Acceptance of a feeling or sensation involves acknowledging its presence without trying to change it or get rid of it. It’s not the pain, in and of itself, that causes issues for people—but, rather it’s their valuation of it. Research (Winerman 2011) has shown that trying your hardest not to think about something actually enhances the thought, giving it even more power. This conundrum can create a personal hell for you out on the racecourse. As the struggle increases, and you try to steer your attention away from your throbbing feet and aching legs, you’re more likely to give them even more of your precious attention.
Responding to pain with resistance converts a challenging experience from something that is happening, to something that is happening to you. That perspective quickly puts you into a victim mindset, and not only do you feel worse, but you’re also less capable of responding productively to the situation.
Approaching struggle and discomfort with openness encourages mental and emotional flexibility. When you’re willing to accept whatever experience comes your way, you’re already in a better position to respond to adversity. This perspective positions you to make strategic decisions and proactively respond to obstacles. Giving up control over the pain frees that energy to be spent elsewhere. When you let discomfort take up too much of your attention, you inadvertently stop focusing on more task-relevant cues.
One way to integrate these concepts into training and racing is to practice simply noticing the sensations that your brain is receiving as pain and try to remove any kind of appraisal of what it means. Let it become background noise—something that can be there without demanding any of your conscious attention. If relevant, it’s also helpful to attach an action step to give yourself something productive to think about. For example, instead of “My legs are killing me. I can’t keep going,” you can notice the sensation by acknowledging “My legs are heavy. Pick up your feet.” The second statement acknowledges the physical sensation you’re experiencing without attaching as much emotion while also highlighting it as controllable and as worth your attention.
One step at a time
Some of the meaning that we attach to pain is based on our expectations and how long we think we will have to tolerate discomfort. When you experience unpleasant sensations, your body is communicating with your brain about how hard it is working and how long it thinks it can reasonably sustain the effort. This concept is called regulatory anticipation, which is a fancy term for pacing. Your mind helps you to establish a pace that seems sustainable for your body based on what it knows is coming up. If the end of the suffering is nowhere in sight, it’s much easier to interpret the experience as more extreme and intolerable, and your mind can prematurely shut you down for fear of the road ahead.
One effective way to mitigate this issue is by using a technique called segmenting or chunking, in which you break the race into segments, taking it one mile at a time. Aid stations and crew points create a built-in method for this strategy. Using these segments, you can cut deals with yourself. If your mind is telling you to stop, convince it to get up the next hill or to the next mile marker. By giving yourself a potential out, you’re able to override the mechanism by making the overall journey seem more doable.
Research continues to demonstrate how impactful mindfulness can be for managing discomfort and for sport performance. When it comes to dealing with pain and discomfort, a mindful approach means noticing bodily sensations without judgment. Whatever your body is experiencing isn’t good or bad; it just is. It’s when we attach a judgment or value to the experience that we enhance potential negative beliefs about what it means.
By separating the physical experience from the emotional one, you create distance between yourself and the unpleasant sensations your body is experiencing. To practice noticing your body and how it feels without attaching thoughts or emotions, start with body scans.
Managing the space between experiences and emotions is crucial for ensuring you’re only directing psychological resources to things that are productive and within your control.
An outward focus
When you’re fully fixated on unpleasant or uncomfortable sensations, your attention is being directed inward. If you go for a run and experience pain, it can feel almost impossible to think about anything else.
If you have experienced this, then you were probably directing your focus inward. Simply turning your attention outward can entirely change how you understand the same situation. For example, if you accept that appropriate levels of pain are a necessary byproduct of running a good race, then hurting is a positive thing, not an indication that you’re not running well.
In summary, Addie Bracy provides numerous ways you can deal with discomfort during an ultra race, although these techniques could be applied to other sports too when things feel tough.
Acknowledging and accepting the discomfort you’re feeling, and experiencing the feeling without judgement can help you overcome the urge to stop. So too can moving your attention externally rather than internally. Being aware of these methods is the first step, now going and implementing them is the challenge. In Mental Training for Ultrarunning, Addie provides plenty more tips and insights plus activities for you to complete, helping you mentally prepare for the race ahead.
Mental Training for Ultrarunning