When most people think of running their first marathon or ultramarathon, they immediately think of the toll it will take on their bodies.  While it’s true that your body will go through quite a bit of pain, it is often the mind that leads athletes out of a race or to a finish that is less than they were hoping for.  As an ultra-endurance athlete part of my training, subconsciously, is to train my brain to be able to endure and push on.  It is inevitable that at some point in almost any race your brain will go into self-defense mode and, in an attempt to preserve your body, will begin telling you that you cannot go on, the pain is too much, and you are not trained for this type of event.  The problem is that your brain is a bit of a drama queen!  Your brain begins going into self-defense mode much earlier than is needed to protect your body from any damage.  But, the mind is powerful and if you let it take over, you will ultimately fulfill the mind’s own prophecy and your chances of finishing will diminish rapidly.  

So how do we deal with this so that we can finish and finish well?  There are two related aspects to developing the mind of an endurance athlete:  training the mind and controlling the mind.  Training the mind starts weeks and months before your event and requires you to begin to address mental negativity during your physical training.  Controlling the mind happens leading up to and during the actual race.  This involves making sure you remain in charge of your thoughts and block out the hyper-protective brain.  Here are a few tips I have used to address both of these aspects:


Training the mind - During long, hard training sessions the mind will go through the same self-defense process as on race day, so this is a great time to start training the mind that you are actually ok.

  • Control your breathing – block out the negativity of your mind by focusing on your breath and ensuring it is rhythmic and controlled.
  • Listen to positive upbeat music.
  • Become in tune with your body – focus on the different aspects of your body and determine if you are truly in pain or if it is just your mind being overly cautious.
  • Develop positive mantras – “I can do this,” “I got this,” or “I am unbreakable.”  Find one that works for you and get ready to repeat this over and over again.
  • Find happy thoughts – long hard training sessions are a great way to figure out what thoughts or memories invoke feelings of happiness, courage, and strength.  These thoughts and memories will serve you well on race day.

Controlling the mind – Its finally race time and the nerves are flowing like a waterfall.  Now is the time to put your training into action and take control of your mind and body.

  • In the days leading up to your event take time to relax and enjoy the process.  Talk to people you meet, appreciate the beauty of the race location, and keep telling yourself that you paid to do this and it is a good thing.
  • On race day, show up with a smile on your face.  Engage with the other runners and volunteers.  Feeding off of their energy will go a long way to feeling positive all the way to the finish line.
  • If doubt or fear starts to creep in, immediately kill it with your positive mantra, thoughts and memories.  If you let negativity linger it will spread like a disease and eventually shut your body down.
  • Pack notes or mementos from friends or loved ones.  A simple note from a spouse or significant other can lift your spirits in the darkest of times.
  • Trust your training – you put in the work and you are ready…remember that!
  • If you are bringing food along with you for the race, bring something that makes you feel like a happy child – a favorite candy bar or cookie can be a huge boost when you are feeling down.
  • Finally, and most important, remember that you are doing this because you want to, and that no matter how bad it hurts now, the feeling of finishing well is so much more powerful.

Try employing these tips and tricks for your next event and come across the finish line with a smile from ear to ear!