Secrets to the Ultramarathon Mindset

One thing we’ve noticed in the runners at Joe’s, is their incredible mental toughness. There is something about the mindset of a runner who can consistently push the physical boundaries, even when they’re body has screamed “Stop!” hours ago.  Getting a runners mindset is not formulaic. However, there are a few common things everyone can do to start to build the mental toughness of even the hardiest ultra runner. First steps first.


Become aware

If you have no idea what thought patterns you’ve got scripted in your head currently, this is your first step.

You can’t change what you’re not aware of.

A stream of thought (whether you are conscious of them or not) already runs through your mind from before you even look at your laces let alone go for a run. How you approach running, your core motivations, and your self talk during your run all play a part in forming what your current mental state around running is. This can be a blocker in getting your best performance yet.


Activity: So, the opportunity awaits in the workout. You are most likely capturing your workouts in some form of system (MapMyRun, Strava, or still on paper and pen?). How much are you recording of your mental state and experiences during your runs?

Record (along with your regular distance/time/splits) your thoughts. What did you notice? What were you telling yourself before, and after the run. How did you perceive your body to feel? What happens to your cognitive appraisals when you got bored, tired, or thought the run was too long? What did you notice about your environment?


Beginning to expand your awareness to the mental patterns and self talk is the first step in becoming that steel forged runner.


Write the script

We all are storytellers. We tell others, and even ourselves narratives about who we think we are as a people, or who we think we are as athletes. This script gets run and run over and over until we forget the original draft.


“I’m not a runner’, “I am a slow runner”, “I don’t look good running”, “I’m not going to be able to maintain this pace.”

Time to rewrite the script.

Activity: First, write down all the thoughts that currently make an appearance when you contemplate running. Thoughts may start with “I am” or “You are”. Be ballsy, and write down the one’s you’re even ashamed to have. Honestly, these are not your thoughts, they are just the mind and a whole bunch of conjecture that has been floating in the human brain since the dawn of time. Sorry to say, they are not specially yours.


So, after you’ve written them, read them out loud. Imagine your friend is reading them out loud. Imagine your friend is saying that about themselves. Pretty lousy right!?

This type of negative rumination impacts your performance.

Flip the script.


Activity: The moment write positive, enthusiastic, encouraging notes about your training. Again, imagine you are training a friend, being their cheerleader and giving a pep talk. Start again with “I am”, “You are” statements. They may sound like this. “I am determined”, “You are crushing your goals!”, “I am on the path of progress”, “I’m unstoppable!”. Feel a difference in your body?


Challenge yourself

Courage does not exist without its precursor; fear. Likewise, mental toughness does not exist without challenge. You need to seek difficulty and hardship, get a little bit of Type 2 or 3 fun into you to commence building that stoicism. Building mental toughness is just about enduring pain and hardship without displaying of feelings and without complaint. It’s about just getting it bloody done.


Activity: Have calendered in difficult workouts, either events, or in training. Make note of how you are handling it. Do you adopt a misery, victim “woe is me’ mentality? Or are you all about crushing it?


Automate decision making

If you are making over 100 decisions a day, you are absolutely going to run out of steam and ‘will power’ to push yourself hard during a workout. Self control to keep going during a long, hard, arduous run takes a massive amount of energy. Making the choice not to listen to that screaming “STOP!” or “slow down!” voice in your head may be an ongoing battle of the mind, lasting for potential hours.


In fact, some sources suggest that the average person makes an eye-popping 35,000 choices per day. Assuming that most people spend around seven hours per day sleeping and thus blissfully choice-free, that makes roughly 2,000 decisions per hour or one decision every two seconds.


Activity:  Activity, prioritize. Don’t waste brain power on choices you can make automatically. Automize things that you can. Food prepping, having ready available healthy snacks in the fridge ready to go. Getting your food delivered/automatically ordered each week. Makes for more time and less energy contemplating what’s for dinner. Having your runners and clothes ready on the floor ready for the AM run. Small things like this add up and allow you to keep your reserves of willpower.


Top takeaways:

  • Becoming aware of our thought patterns is numero uno. It can start with recording the data objectively to see thoughts and trends.
  • Writing down what scripts are running get it out of our heads, and we are able to change it.
  • If we are using all our willpower before going into a run, we won’t be able to have a full reserve for ‘battle’
  • Training hard sessions flexes the stoic inside of us. Mental toughness is trainable, and just needs stimulus: something hard.
  • Research shows that routinely practicing activities that work on persistence in the face of fatigue or obstacles can lead to automatization of the process. This means that if we can frame races and training correctly, we can ingrain this “mental toughness” ability.
  • Running is basically impulse resistance, the faster we use our willpower in the race/run, the faster it will be drained.
  • If we are drained of willpower going in, we don’t have a full reserve to battle with and will give in earlier.
  • Automating decisions delays draining of self-control.



Derek C. Dorris a, *, David A. Power a, Emily Kenefick, Investigating the effects of ego depletion on physical exercise routines of athletesEva M. Krockow Ph.D., How Many Decisions Do We Make Each Day?

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