Train Your Brain to Just Keep Going
Whatever goal you're getting after, the tenacious ways of two pro ultra-marathoners and coaches can help you get there.
Imagine running 100 miles—at once. That's a little less than four marathons, back to back, and a little more than the distance from New York City to Philadelphia. If you keep a consistent 8- to 8:30-minute-mile pace, it means you start at 9 in the morning and don't stop until 9 at night. No biggie, right?
For now, don't think of what that distance might do to your body. Instead, focus on what it would demand of your mind. The will to overcome fear. The discipline to focus on a task. The perspective to know the pain will pass. These are mental resources everyone uses in daily life. But ultra-marathoners, who typically run 35 to 100 miles and sometimes much longer, seem to have deeper wells. So how do they do it? And how can you tap into their tenacious mindset to go the distance no matter what goal you're getting after? Find out by taking a peek under the hoods of Nike elite ultra-marathoners and coaches Sally McRae and David Laney.
01. Cling to a reason.
One recent study published in "Psychology Research and Behavior Management" found that while shorter-distance runners are mainly driven by tangible results, like winning races, ultra-runners find purpose in pushing their own mental and physical endurance—and in fellowship with those doing the same. The researchers suspect that it might have to do with the lifestyle ultra-running requires.
Laney says he runs very, very far because he genuinely enjoys everything about it. "I love running", he says. "I love training hard. I love being in the mountains. My whole aim is to focus completely on what I'm doing. Like Churchill said, I want to 'command the moment to remain'".
McRae, meanwhile, seconds that fellowship motive identified in the study—and actively downplays the hardware she's won (which includes 11 first-place medals). "What really keeps me going is that when I'm doing an ultra, I connect with other runners from around the world", she says. "I love that I can use my sport to meet new people, and to hopefully inspire and encourage them along the way. To me that's always been more memorable than any medal".
Consider an ultra-marathon a metaphor for any long-term goal, whether it's a 30-day healthy eating challenge or learning a new language. By finding motivation in the experience itself rather than the outcome, or connecting with someone on a similar journey, you may be more likely to achieve that big goal.
"I love that I can use my sport to meet new people, and to hopefully inspire and encourage them along the way. To me that's always been more memorable than any medal".
Nike Elite Ultra-marathoner and Coach
02. Plan for the worst.
"To get through an ultra, you have to expect to be challenged in ways that you've never been before", says McRae. "When you get to mile 71 and a storm hits, or you have to climb up yet another mountain, or you're sick to your stomach—those things happen. So you've got to mentally prepare for them".
One way Laney trains his mind to better handle the inevitable pain he'll experience during a race: frequent ice baths. "I'll fill up a bathtub with ice water and just sit there", he says. "In five minutes, I'll be fighting everything in my brain saying, 'Get out of here! You have to get out!' But I just sit and absorb it, sometimes for up to 15 minutes. I calm my breathing. I get to a point where I'm like, 'No, you're fine'".
That's not to say you have to turn yourself into an ice lolly in order to build willpower. You can start by practising a psychology technique called "realistic optimism", or taking a mental inventory of every little thing that could go wrong and developing a contingency plan for each one. That way, when you're faced with something that just plain sucks, you're less likely to be derailed by it.
03. See it before you do it.
Like most elite runners, both McRae and Laney practise some form of visualisation before a race. "I love doing course recon", says McRae. "I picture every part of the course in my mind as I go to sleep—where each hill is, where the aid stations are. I envision myself running into the aid stations and exactly what I'm going to do at each one".
Laney's approach, meanwhile, is just what you'd expect from an athlete who sits in ice water to steel his nerves. "I just get straight to the problem", he says. "I know I don't have to practise the feeling-good part, so I imagine myself very hot and very thirsty, and my stomach feeling super bad. And I'm 5 miles from an aid station".
Both runners' forms of visualisation serve the same purpose: priming their minds for the expected and unexpected so that when the time comes, their reflexes are sharper and their focus stronger. And it's not only applicable to epic runs. The night before a morning jog, try imagining every turn of your route, the breeze on your skin and each song on your playlist. When you lace up in the morning, see if you move a little faster—or just have more fun.
"It's really important to remember you're in charge of the roller coaster. If you just tell yourself, 'It's going to get better' and 'This is just what happens', it gives you some control back when things start to feel like they're spiralling".
Nike Elite Ultra-marathoner and Coach
04. Be your own coach.
"It's really important to remember you're in charge of the roller coaster", says Laney. "If you just tell yourself, 'It's going to get better' and 'This is just what happens', it gives you some control back when things start to feel like they're spiralling". When Laney says "just tell yourself", he's referring to a practice known as "self-talk", a strategy that's practically essential when you're alone with your thoughts for hours on end (you know, like during an ultra-marathon). This means consciously shaping your inner dialogue, inspiring yourself when you need it most.
McRae practises self-talk too. "One of the most powerful things I tell myself is, 'Don't think, just go'", she says. "A lot of times your mind can also be your greatest enemy. You can get caught up in, 'Oh my gosh, this is never going to end'. But if you can push through that, you're going to get to the finishing line. You're going to do something amazing".
The common thread seems to be that however difficult the moment, it's just a moment. Try calmly reminding yourself of that the next time a workout, run, game or news cycle gets intense. If it can get Laney and McRae through the 12th hour of a run, it can help you get through a tough day too.