Mental training for ultra-runners: 3 tips


A friend of mine asked for some advice this morning. She is preparing for a 100 mile race and asked how I overcame the mental hurdles at the Bigfoot 200 and past ultra-distance events. She also asked about training and recovery, which I’ll dip into before tackling the big question.

When a runner asks about training and recovery I encourage them to check out our Strength Training for Ultra-Athletes Program.

In short, we deadlift and squat heavy weights for low reps 3 times per week. We incorporate short duration, high intensity conditioning sessions 3-4 times per week. They challenge us mentally as well as physically and make us very good at pushing through the tough spots in races.

We keep the overall mileage low and the quality high, focusing on sprint work, mile repeats and one long training run per week. If you can lower your mile time, holding a significantly slower pace in an ultra is easy. If you are pushing your max speed just to make cut-offs, having a positive and successful race experience is going to be much harder.

One misconception about our training center that I want to clear up immediately is that we focus on long, slow distance runs. We train for speed and explosive power, and many of our athletes are pretty freaking fast:)

We prioritize mobility, recovery, sleep, and nutrition-all while cultivating the skill of running.

We believe that if we are not hitting all of the bases in our training we are simply showing up unprepared.

Providing that we are physically prepared, cultivating mental strength is all that remains.

On the one hand, it comes back to training. At our training center we willingly go to a place that many runners experience only in an exceptionally grueling training run or in a race-and we go there on a very regular basis. We are comfortable being uncomfortable.

On the other, we recognize that everything  has a cost.

For ultra-runners that cost is pain. It is an inevitable part of running for 30, 50 or 100+ miles over rugged, mountain terrain. I think that it is a very small price to pay. It is the cost of admission to life’s greatest adventures.

Accepting that something is going to hurt, but at the same time it is going to reward you beyond measure, is a critical part of your success in ultra running.

“Pain, it only hurts”

-ultra-running legend Scott Jurek

But, the majority of DNF’s don’t come from an unbearable source of pain. And the don’t come from injury. They come from the runner, slowly, and skillfully, talking themselves out of the race. The just don’t want to be there anymore, and they tell themselves whatever is necessary to end the experience with honor. Or just to end it.

Here’s the deal. Many of us are always trying to get to the next place. We excitedly arrive at the start of a race anticipating a new challenge, and the moment that it actually challenges us, we just can’t wait for the whole experience to end. I’ve had athletes come to my center for the sole purpose of engaging in a difficult training session. It’s what they wanted, why they’ve hired me as a coach and why they are there. But, as soon as the session actually gets difficult, they want it to end. They want to be on the other side of it already, in a pool of sweat and feeling awesome, with the experience behind them. When they are in the heart of a hard workout they want to be anywhere else. So the question to ask is:

“Where else would you rather be?”

Those moments where everything is moving fast and your heart is slamming into your chest and you’re asking yourself whether you can hang on-that is living. In this moment you are in your element. You are a strong and powerful human being, testing and exploring the outer ranges of your physical and mental capabilities. Where else would you rather be?

On your couch? At the grocery store? Anywhere but here?

What could be better, more exciting and have more potential to change you and help you grow than this very moment that you are experiencing? Don’t check out on it, don’t think about the oil change that you need to get tomorrow or the vet appointment that you need to reschedule just to get away from it. Stay with it, because it’s what you came for. It is why you are here.

In an ultra the pain and the discomfort are different. Maybe time is moving exceptionally slow. Maybe you’re falling asleep on your trekking poles at 4 am, slogging up a never, ever, ever ending hill or 1/4 of the way through a run that just doesn’t feel right and the thought of quitting is already creeping into your mind. Ask yourself every time:

“Where else would I rather be?” 

Is it at the finish line with a smile on your face (and that amazing sense of accomplishment that is just too deep to convey to anyone who hasn’t sat there with their body trembling after a 100 mile run, completely in awe of what they just accomplished). If so, there’s only one direction. Keep going forward.

Is it at the finish line after quitting on your big goal?


No one ever wants to be there, but there are plenty of DNF’s at every race. Some runners got legitimately hurt and made a smart, athletic decision to end their day and not sabotage their ability to do what they love.

Kudo’s. It takes a smart athlete to know when going forwards is going backwards.

But, many just didn’t want to be on the trail anymore, and now they don’t want to be there at the finish line after having quit. So they jump on ultra-signup and find another place that they want to be. Until they get there.

Finishing an ultra is often just a matter of maintaining perspective. You need to be able to step back, take stock of where you are and what you have already accomplished, and realize that very thing that intrigued you about all of this ultra business is actually happening right now! And you’re in danger of missing it completely.

With this in mind here are my top three tips for cultivating mental strength for ultra marathon races.

1. Know why you’re there.

You came to this thing for a reason. There is a reason that hiking, running 10k’s or even running marathons is not enough for you. You are looking for something.

Maybe it is an opportunity to test yourself. Well, this is the test. You have arrived. In the darkest moments of a race when fear, self-doubt and all of the other demons sneak in, remind yourself, audibly, that you have arrived. This is what you came for and now you are getting it. You are lucky to have this opportunity (most people won’t) and you shouldn’t want to be anywhere but here. Say it out loud, take a look around you, appreciate this moment in which you have just reclaimed your race and move on toward the finish line.

Maybe it isn’t a test at all. (It doesn’t always have to be) Maybe you came just to check out some new trails with the supportive infrastructure of a race allowing to really go long. Maybe you’ve come to climb a new mountain or experience extreme distance running in a strange and beautiful place. In this case, you are on a great adventure. Don’t forget to enjoy it. Each race is like a marked and guided tour of someone’s favorite trails. It is like a game. In fact, it is a game. (That’s what racing is, remember?) Appreciate the moments that would not be possible if you hadn’t run 60 or 70 miles to get there. Seeing the sun rise after a full night of running is a rare, and wonderful gift that most people will never experience. It’s what you came for. Don’t forget that, and definitely don’t miss it.

2. Run with gratitude

Gratitude is the prevalent theme in all of my big runs. I am doing what I love, and I am grateful.  Life can take us on a lot of unplanned adventures, but runs and races are adventures that we planned for, looked forward to and are lucky enough to be able to participate in. To be caught in a midnight rain while running along a mountain ridgeline, all beneath a big and beautiful moon-that is a very rare gift. How many people get to experience that? How many people do you know that have even been on a mountain at night? Or on a mountain at all?

We are adventurers, pioneers and the architects of our dreams. Through our courage we have started training to accomplish the impossible. Through our training we have earned the right to share in some pretty spectacular human experiences.

We have to be so careful not to miss them.

The ability to respond to the unexpected with gratitude and openness as opposed to frustration, anger and fear is the number one thing that you can cultivate to advance your progress in ultra running. At the Bigfoot 200 I approached the last 60 miles with the realization that I was running in Washington State along the shadows of the Cascade Mountains. I was running on my dream trails and in my dream race. I approached it with the same mentality that I approached a big adventure run with a friend-with excitement and an eagerness to explore. I reminded myself that I may never run underneath the stars in Washington State again, and I enjoyed it to the absolute fullest. This is easy to do when the demons are at bay, and when they appear the “tools and tricks” to push them back into the depths of your mind are not tools or tricks at all. It requires the opposite of trickery-it requires us to step back for a second and take an objective and honest look at what we are doing (what we love the most) and a return to gratitude.

3. Don’t feed the demon.

Often we approach a race “knowing” that there is going to be a serious low point. Some terrible moment which will test every last ounce of our resolve.

This isn’t always true.

If we are fit, and prepared, there is a chance that this whole thing will be one wild adventure that we can enjoy from start to finish. I’ve had races that presented no serious low’s, just a lot of great memories in the mountains. Prepare for low points, but don’t count on them. And definitely don’t create them.

Anticipate hitting a major low and you are already feeding the demon. At some point in every race a couple of demons will show up, and they are often small and harmless, until you feed them. The moment that you begin thinking that “the low” is fast approaching and that the hotpsot on your foot, the nausea that has just crept up on you, or the feeling of loneliness that is beginning to grow is, in fact, the beginning of an inevitable turning point in which your great adventure becomes a nightmare you’ve already fed the demon. It’tripled in size. Keep on feeding it and I guarantee it will eat you alive.

Learn to squash it immediately.

Squash it on site, and get back to the adventure that you’ve invested in. The adventure that you’ve earned through your training. Recognize it as nothing other than a small challenge that you are more than capable of overcoming. Remember that you are awesome. You are powerful and you are strong. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t have made it here. Then get back to being present and being aware. You are doing what you love. You are here for a reason. And whatever you came to find can be easily missed.

Do not miss it.

If you are physically prepared, racing for a reason that is close to your heart, full of gratitude to be on the trails and ready to squash a couple of demons along the way you should be ready to cross the next finish line that you’ve set your sites on. If you’ve got a big goal race post it in the comments section, and we’ll be sure to send you some good vibes from the training center!

Run strong, run well and go the distance.


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