Train Your Brain (The Most Important Muscle)
How do you prepare your mind to run an ultramarathon? I mean, how does one wrap their head around running a 50 or 100 mile (or more) race when they’ve never done it before? “I don’t even like to drive that far” is something most ultrarunners have heard about a thousand times (and more than likely made their ears bleed a little). It’s true. The mind usually wanders to a time and location when driving a hundred miles seemed monumental and you probably just wanted it to be over with already. These thoughts make running a hundred miles seem nearly impossible. So how does someone begin to properly prepare their mind for such an endeavor? Or more importantly, how does one even begin to train their mind at all?
First, let’s look at the best and most elite minds out there and find out how they do it.
The Shaolin Monks
The Shaolin Monks have been honing their skills and training their minds as far back as 490 AD. They have long believed that our greatest strength comes from our mind and that our strengths have no bounds. They are able to endure great amounts of physical pain and they attribute their superpowers to their daily practice. Monks often claim their powers are merely a byproduct of their practice. Meaning they don’t train their bodies to preform supernatural feats, the powers just come naturally from training their minds. This mental training for them is simply sitting down in one place and calming the mind. Focusing on the breath. When thoughts come into their head, they simply acknowledge them and then return to the breath. You guessed it—meditation.
Rigorous training of the mind forms the foundation from which physical techniques flow easily. If you can’t see it, you can’t do it. Monks believe that meditation, focus and self-awareness must be mastered before attempting anything. They also feel that our physical movements are only limited by our imagination and preconceived notions taught to us when we were young. We have to unlearn these limits. Imagine not being taught any physical limitations when we were children. What could be possible?
The monastic lifestyle encourages not only daily meditation but daily journaling. Having these quiet times allows us to connect with ourselves on a deep level, often bringing up secrets, phobias and vulnerabilities that we don’t often think about. This way, we are able to tackle our doubts, worries and secrets. When they lay dormant and unmanaged in the back of our minds, they are able to bubble up to the surface in times of stress. Usually, when we least want to deal with them.
The Navy SEALs
The origins of the Navy SEALs goes back to the 1960’s. Most people think of their insane strength and unmatched physical capabilities but it is actually their mental toughness that makes them stand out. One former SEAL, Brandon Webb wrote in his memoir “What SEAL training really tests is your mental mettle. It is designed to push you mentally to the brink, over and over again, until you are hardened and able to take on any task with confidence, regardless of the odds—or until you break”.
One thing the SEALs implement is breaking big challenges down into smaller segments. They call this Eating the Elephant. You can only eat an elephant one way—one bite at a time. This translates well to endurance sports. Rather than looking at the race as a whole, choose to focus on getting to the next aid station or check point. Or the next tree, if you have to. If you are unable to get your head around the next eighty miles because at mile twenty you are already feeling fatigue, you are approaching it entirely wrong. Just focus on getting yourself over the next hill or to the next aid station. Once you are there, take care of yourself properly and push on towards the next. Segmentation is the key.
Another key component the SEALs believe in is visualization. Visualize yourself at your event in a state of effortless success. Don’t waste a second of your time picturing yourself failing. Take the time to sit down and engage all of your senses. How will it smell at mile sixty? What will the taste in your mouth be at mile eighty? How big will your smile be at the finish line? Imagine all of the possible negative obstacles and hurdles you could encounter and visualize yourself overcoming them all, one by one. Practice this over and over until you are sick of practicing it. Then practice some more.
Remember, we can’t control what happens in the outside world but we can control our interpretation of it. When the dragon comes out to play, we simply laugh at it and it loses all of its power. If you don’t care what the day throws at you, it’s all just going to be a part of the story after you are done. Nothing more. What could have been interpreted as a negative simply becomes the best part of the story after it’s all said and done.
What can we implement from the SEALs and the Monks? There is obviously more that goes into training for an ultra than just mental preparation. But this is often the overlooked component that leaves the well trained athlete wondering what went wrong and why they DNF’d. You’ve got to train the body as well as the mind. “The more you sweat in times of peace, the less you bleed in times of war.” Make your training difficult. When you’re tired from a long week at work and all you want is to sit down with your favorite snack and watch a movie, train. You’re going to be tired at the race. When you haven’t had a good night sleep and you want to skip your workout, train. You may not get a good night sleep before the race. When you’re sick and just want to stay in bed, train. You may wake up on race day with a cold. If you do, are you going to quit before you even start? Not a chance. These are the keys to a bulletproof mindset.
Of course I’m not suggesting that you go train all night every night until you are sick and injured. Pepper your training schedule with really tough days. Schedule rest days around your tough days. Take care of yourself so that you are rested and healthy on race day.
Also, you want to show up on race day with a clear conscience. Everything in your life should be taken care of, handled properly and in order. You don’t want to have other things on your mind on the day of your big event. Is your bed made? Are your bills paid? Are your teeth flossed? Are your grievances handled? Are you holding grudges or resentments? If you are, those are the demons that will show up about halfway through the race. You want them all taken care of before the gun goes off. Clear conscience, clear mind.
Also, consider making some time for some deep breathing exercises not only during training but on the morning of the race. You only need about ten minutes. There is a simple practice that many people use to reduce stress called box breathing or four-square breathing. Simply relax your body and do the following:
-Slowly exhale all of the air in your lungs to the count of four.
-Keep your lungs empty for a count of four.
-Slowly inhale for a count of four.
-Keep your lungs full for a count of four.
That’s it! Then celebrate small victories throughout the day to keep the morale high. Be thankful you are healthy enough to even consider a race like the one you’re signed up for. Many people aren’t as lucky as you. Take time to notice the little things. Enjoy running with wet feet for a while and then, enjoy putting on dry socks at an aid station. Enjoy the pungent smell of the woods after a long rain. Cheer other runners on—out loud! What you are really doing is encouraging yourself. This is not a selfish act. This is showing bravery in the face of adversity. Which is honestly why we’re all here, right?
Our motto at Big Things Crewing is DO BIG THINGS. However, in order to DO BIG THINGS, you have to do a series of small things first. You don’t want to show up to a big race thinking to yourself, “I didn’t train as hard as I should have” or “I didn’t eat properly” or “The weather sucks today, I’m not ready for this”. You have to have all of your ducks in a row and be ready for absolutely anything and everything. You have to surrender your worries and know that you are showing up as ready as you possibly can be. After that, everything will fall into place.