100 miles: Psychological skills

If you have read my previous posts, you may have noticed that I talk about the differences between things which will help you finish a race at a faster pace vs things which will halt your race.  While there is likely some overlap in these variables, my reading of the research leads me to conclude that nutrition, psychology and injury play a larger role in whether you can finish a 100 mile race, while fitness largely determines how fast you finish.

When I was in my undergrad, I had the privilege of competing in collegiate fencing.  I was terrible at it, but the experience exposed me to psychological techniques that people use to improve their performance.  I have found that these techniques are important tools to finish a 100 mile race.  The techniques I mainly use are imagery, and positive self talk.  I will briefly explain how to use these to avoid dropping from a race early.

Imagery lets us establish a belief in our minds by using our imaginations.  One of the most difficult things for a novice in ultrarunning to do is getting to the point that you believe you can actually do this.  If you lack this belief, you will most likely drop from a race when you start feeling pain or tiredness because finishing will seem impossible.  In the weeks prior to the race, spend some time imagining yourself in several situations.  First, maybe watch some videos of people running and finishing 100 mile races and imagine yourself as that person crossing the finish line.  Second, imagine yourself  at the height of fatigue ~60-70 miles into the race and imagine yourself continuing to race through this feeling.  You want to train yourself mentally to push through the worst periods of a race.  I say mile 60-70 because that seems to be the point where you are exhausted and you still have a significant distance to run.  It’s usually the make or break point for me in a 100 miler.

The second technique I often use is positive self talk.  Throughout a 100 mile race you will be tempted to have despairing or negative thoughts. “I feel terrible, I am tired, I don’t want to even do this”  We’ve all had these thoughts.  The problem is, as the race progresses, if you allow these thoughts to progress they will turn from “I am tired” to “I can’t do this” and you will quit.  How I use positive self talk is to replace the negative thoughts with a positive thought.  When I feel tired, instead of allowing myself to think about and dwell on the fatigue, I say out loud “I feel great” or “I feel amazing”.  Replace the negative with a positive phrase.  Keep this up throughout the race and you can stave off the decline in psychological state.

The last thing you might want to do is incorporate music.  Download some positive music.  Research shows that you get the most effect from music you enjoy and that is not overly familiar.  Break down and buy a couple new albums for your mp3 device the weeks before the race.  I also find that I get a stronger effect if I spend a couple weeks before the race not listening to any music.

If this post interests you, consider some of the following books to add to your collection.

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