Tips on mental preparation for ultra races

You've been building up the kilometres carefully and, as per your training plan, your body is getting stronger and the runs are getting easier. As the race draws closer, however, negative thoughts start to drift into your mind: what if I can’t finish? What if something goes wrong like I get sick or turn an ankle? What if I just give up?

Mental strength and adequately preparing your mind for a race is equally, if not more, important than physical training. When things get tough, it's going to be your grit and determination that will keep you putting one foot in front of the other right up to the finish line.

To get some strategies for mental strength training before, during and after the race we spoke to Gemma Bragg, wife of The North Face athlete and ultra-runner, Jez Bragg, who holds a Masters Degree in Sport & Exercise Psychology, specialising in the ‘exploration of the psychological qualities of elite ultra runners.


Preparing for race day

1. Practice the things you don’t like doing

We all like to feel good about our training, to know that things are going well and that we are improving. But that can also lead to us putting our heads in the sand and hiding away from the difficult aspects. This will only come back to haunt you.

Maybe you prefer the uphill to careering downhill or prefer running during the day than night. Whatever it is that you see as your weakness, by training them and putting yourself through them, you will develop the confidence and mental strength required for race day.

2. Try things out well in advance

Whatever you do, don't try something new on race day. If you don’t use running poles, then don't step up to the start line with them. Likewise, if you’ve never had gels before, don’t think that race day is the time to test them out.

Try to practice everything you need for race day well in advance and in an environment that is safe and forgiving. Know what works for you and trust that you have done enough research and practice before the starting whistle.

3. Take part in smaller races

Races with hundreds, if not thousands, of people are very different to running on your own or with a friend or two. Adrenaline levels will be much higher with other athletes jockeying for position, crowds cheering and the general excitement a race can have.

Start with smaller events to get a feel for the atmosphere and excitement of race day.

4. Be flexible with your goals

It's only natural to dream of crossing the finish line in a great time and smiling for the cameras but be flexible with your goals. Create a range of goals that will accommodate the unknown and things out of your control on race day.

5. Visualise a very low point

You will almost certainly encounter a low point in a race, especially in an ultra and being ready for that moment will make the difference between carrying the negativity with you for longer than necessary and dealing with it and moving on.

Visualise a very low point and think about a strategy you will use to bounce back; maybe how lucky you are to be running in this environment or seeing your friends and family at the next feed station. Whatever it is, hold onto it.


During the race

1. Focus internally

When the going gets tough start to reflect internally on you, your body and your running. Think about your breathing. Is it steady and controlled? Think about your stride. Are you running efficiently and effectively? And think about your mind. Are you in the moment and feeling positive?

2. Focus externally

If you've run the course of thinking internally, start to think externally as well. A wonderful aspect to ultra trail running are the environments you find yourself in. Stop and take a moment to look at the beautiful landscape. Look around at all the other runners who have worked so hard to get there and look to the supporters who are tirelessly following you along the route. External influences can really raise your spirits during low points.

3. Think of why you signed up in the first place

As you are slogging your way up that 1,000m climb, you might think: what on Earth am I doing this for? At moments like this remember why you signed up for the race. Maybe it was to share the experience with a friend. Perhaps it was in honour of someone. Or maybe it was just to see if you could finish. Reflect on what got you to the start line as it will help carry you to the finish line, too.

4. Break the race down into chunks

By definition, ultra races are long. For even the most seasoned professionals, the distances are hard to comprehend. Don’t think about the fact you have over 60km to go; you will quickly lose hope. Instead, break the race up into manageable chunks such as the distance to the next water station or the length of the next climb. Tick each chunk off and congratulate yourself on the progress you have made each time.

5. Don’t forget fuel

During a race if things get bleak, there is often one main cause and that is your body crashing due to lack of fuel with your mind tumbling too.

Ultra races are often best thought of as eating races with the skill being to keep eating when your body is saying no. Take a moment to eat good quality food and you will quickly feel your spirits and energy return.


After you cross the finish line

1. Recognise the positives of what you have achieved

You have just covered a distance that most people would struggle to comprehend. You committed yourself to an intense training programme and you did all of it yourself. Recognise what an amazing achievement it is and dwell on the positives that the race provided.

2. Be kind to yourself

Your body will be sore and your mind will be exhausted so be kind to yourself and accept that it is going to take some time to recover. Book a holiday or at least plan some time to let the whole event sink in. It's going to take time to process so just be kind to yourself and give yourself all the time you need.

3. Choose a new goal

It does not need to be just after you cross the finish line but when you are ready, start thinking about what is next and put a new goal in place. Maybe it's coming back next year or maybe it's something else entirely. Either way, putting a new goal in place will give you something to look forward to and work towards.