Emily Halnon explores the importance of training your brain and how it can make or break your success when running ultras.
It took me months to register for my first 100-miler because I wouldn’t let myself sign up for the one I really wanted to run. It was 2014, and the race I had my eye on was the Pine to Palm 100-Mile Endurance Run, a point-to-point trek through Oregon’s Siskiyou Mountains that packs 20,000 feet of climbing and descent into its tour of southern Oregon’s alpine trails.
“I want to run it, but I’m not a good mountain runner,” I told my friend Jason. I’d discovered trail running just two years prior after years of road marathoning. I thought I was only capable of running flat, smooth trails.
Like a lot of runners, I was struggling to work through a limiting belief about my running. I’d created a narrative that I wasn’t strong enough to run a mountainous 100-mile race. I was wrong, but I’d need to shift my mindset before I’d see it.
As runners, we tell ourselves stories about our running. And while some of these narratives are positive, others become limiting beliefs that can get in our way. Beliefs like:
“A 100-miler is big and scary. I don’t know if I can finish.”
“When things get tough, I give up too easily.”
“I can climb, but I’m terrible on technical descents and that’s where I’ll lose the race.”
Danielle Snyder, a therapist, mindset coach, and avid trail runner, has a few tips about how to train your mind to handle mental hurdles and self-doubt. Here’s her advice for how to get your brain to work with rather than against you.
The first step, Snyder says, is being intentional about mental conditioning. There’s a common misconception that physical training alone will help us believe in ourselves and what we can do. If we do enough long runs, hard runs, and back-to-back runs, the thinking goes, we’ll magically gain the confidence we need to overcome the mental hurdles and self-doubt that pop up on race day. But we’re missing out if we expect our bodies to do all of the work for our brains. Runners can benefit from specifically working on our mental training, too.
Your long, hard training runs are a prime time to train both your body and your brain, and research shows that mental training like cognitive behavioral therapy can help improve athletic performance. To do this, pay attention to what comes up on your next long run or challenging training block. Think about what mental tools you need to get through specific challenges. And then find ways to practice them.
“Believing [in yourself] is a verb,” Snyder says. “It’s a skill you need to develop.”
She points to one of her recent training runs as an example. She was doing a hill workout and she felt slow on her repeats, so she started berating herself with negative self-talk about being a horrible, incapable runner.
Then, she heard another trail user yelling cruel things at his dog. She was appalled at his behavior—and quickly thereafter, her own. This was exactly what she was doing to herself. She recognized the negative self-talk as a pattern, and an opportunity to practice kindness, self-compassion, and positive self-talk.
Emphasis on “practice,” she says, because mindset shifts are not a one and done thing. “Just like we have to keep working on our fitness, we have to keep working on our mindset,” she says.
It’s natural to feel nervous about tackling a new distance, or going after a faster time, or signing up for a mountainous 100. And, it can be helpful to acknowledge that reality and name your fears. “Fear and doubts don’t mean you can’t succeed,” Snyder says. “They just mean that you’re doing something hard and scary.”
Instead of denying your fears, welcome them to the 100-miler party. The apprehension you feel is probably one of the reasons that you were drawn to a 100-miler or a big goal in the first place. Because you want to be challenged to push your limits.
Let your fears help remind you that you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be. Find ways to move forward with your self-doubt, and strategize about what you can do to set yourself up for success.
If you’re getting ready to run a 100-miler, or race a faster or harder 100-miler, odds are you’ve already gotten through something that scared you. What were those things? Make a mental highlight reel of your most courageous feats to show yourself that you can be scared and do hard things.
Start telling yourself good stories about what you’re capable of. And get ready to repeat those stories during the race. When something feels hard, you’ll be ready with an encouraging story or a mantra to cheer yourself on: You can do hard things; you are stronger than you think; you know how to keep going when things get tough.
Snyder also suggests reminding yourself why you want to do the run in the first place. “How will it feel to finish your 100-miler? Or, to nail your goal?” she asks. The answers to those questions can be a powerful motivator for getting through the hardest challenges.
When you’re running or racing long distances, there’s a good chance that you’re going to struggle with something. Snyder advises her clients to view challenging moments with curiosity. It’s what she refers to as a beginner’s mindset, a concept drawn from spiritual practices like Buddhism. “I try to apply a beginner mindset to every race,” she says. “Even if I’m not a beginner anymore, I’m still new to every race on that day.”
If you feel disappointed because you didn’t hit your goal or finish, or you felt like you weren’t as strong on the climbs as your friends, that’s a natural reaction, but try not to turn disappointment into fodder for self-doubt. “It’s okay to feel disappointed,” Snyder says. “We’re passionate people—we’re going to feel disappointed because we care.”
Still, resist the urge to let a single negative experience become a limiting belief. If you had trouble running a rocky downhill trail, for instance, it doesn’t have to mean you’re a bad downhill runner. What would it look like to view that experience as an opportunity to learn and grow—and have some fun while you’re at it?
Likewise, if you think you shouldn’t sign up for a mountainous 100-miler because you’re “not a good mountain runner,” challenge yourself to stop making up bad stories about yourself, sign up for the race you’re excited to run, and see it as a chance to grow.
The catalyst that helped me finally register for Pine to Palm was a friend saying, “Emily, you love running mountains! Sign up for the race that’s going to make you happy.” And I realized he was right. I really wanted to run Pine to Palm—the only thing stopping me was myself.
So I signed up and started telling myself a new story: That I could and would finish my first 100-mile race. And one step at a time, that’s exactly what I did.