Mind over matter - tips on mental preparation for ultra runners

You have been building the miles carefully and, as per your training plan, your body is getting stronger and the runs are getting easier. As the race draws closer, however, you are starting to worry: what if I can’t finish? What if something goes wrong like I get sick or turn an ankle? What if I just give up?

Mental strength, and adequately preparing your mind for a race is equally, if not more, important than the physical training. When times get tough it is going to be your grit and determination that will keep you putting one foot in front of the other right up to the finish line.



Here we speak to Gemma Bragg about her top tips for preparing for an ultra with strategies for before, during, and after the race. Gemma holds a Masters Degree in Sport & Exercise Psychology, specialising in the ‘exploration of the psychological qualities of elite ultra runners’, and is also the wife of professional ultra runner and The North Face athlete Jez Bragg giving her a unique perspective and deep understanding about what is required to compete in the world’s toughest running races.

Preparing for race day

Here are 5 tips to help prepare you for race day.

1.   Practice the things you don’t like doing

We all like to feel good about our training; to know that things are going well and that we are improving, but that can also lead to us putting our heads in the sand and hiding away from the difficult aspects. This will only come back to haunt you.

Maybe you prefer the uphill to careering downhill or prefer running during the day than night. Whatever it is that you see as your weakness, by training with them and putting yourself through them, you will develop the confidence and mental strength required for race day.

2.   Try things out well in advance

Whatever you do, do not try something new on race day! If you don’t use running poles, then do not step up to the startline with them for the first time. Likewise, if you’ve never had gels before, don’t think that race day is the time to test them out.

Try to practice everything you need for race day well in advance and in an environment that is safe and forgiving. Know what works for you and trust that yobasu have done enough research and practice before the starting whistle.

3.   Take part in smaller races

Races with hundreds, if not thousands, of people are very different to running on your own or with a friend or two. Adrenaline levels will be much higher with other athletes jockeying for position, crowds cheering, and the general excitement a race can have.

Go to smaller events and get a feel for the atmosphere and excitement of race day.

4.   Be flexible with your goals

It is only natural to dream of crossing the finish line in a great time and smiling for the cameras but be flexible with your goals. Create a range of goals that will accommodate the unknown and things out of your control on race day.

5.   Visualise a very low point

You will almost certainly encounter a low point in a race, especially in an ultra, and being ready for that moment will make the difference between carrying the negativity with you for longer than necessary and dealing with it and moving on.

Visualise a very low point and think about a strategy you will use to bounce back; maybe how lucky you are to be running in this environment, or seeing your friends and family at the next feed station. Whatever it is, hold onto it!



During the race

The starting whistle has been blown and you are racing along. Here are 5 tips to help keep you moving forward.

1.   Focus internally

When the going gets tough start to reflect internally on you, your body, and your running. Think about your breathing, is it steady and controlled; think about your stride, are you running efficiently and effectively; and, think about your mind, are you in the moment and feeling positive.

2.   Focus externally

If you have run the course of thinking internally, start to think externally as well. A wonderful aspect to ultra trail running are the environments you find yourself in; stop and take a moment to look around at the beautiful landscape you are privileged to find yourself in, look around at all of the other runners who have worked so hard to get there, and look to the supporters who are tirelessly following you along the route. External influences can really raise your spirits at the low times.

3.   Think of why you signed up in the first place

As you are slogging your way up that 1,000m climb, it might cross your mind ‘what on Earth am I doing this for?’ At moments like this, take a moment to remember why you signed up for the race in the first place. Maybe it was to share the experience with a friend, maybe it was in honour of someone, or maybe it was just to see if you could finish. Reflect on what got you to the start line as it will help carry you to the finish line too.

4.   Break the race down into chunks

By definition, ultra races are long. For even the most seasoned professionals, the distances are hard to comprehend. Don’t think about the fact you have over 60 km to go until the finish line or you will quickly lose hope. Instead, break the race up into manageable chunks such as the distance to the next water station, or the length of the next climb. Tick each chunk off and congratulate yourself on the progress you have made each time.

5.   Don’t forget fuel

During a race if things get bleak, there is often one main cause and that is your body crashing due to lack of fuel with your mind tumbling too.

Ultra races are often best thought of as eating races with the skill being to keep eating when your body is saying no. Take a moment to eat good quality food and you will quickly feel your spirits return.

psychology of running


After you cross the finish line

After the massive high of completing a race, there often come the post-race blues. Here are 3 tips to managing the crash better.

1.   Recognise the positives of what you have achieved

You have just covered a distance that most people would struggle to comprehend, you committed yourself to an intense training programme, and you did all of this yourself. Recognise what an amazing achievement it is and dwell on the positives that the race provided.

2.   Be kind to yourself

Your body will be sore and your mind will be exhausted so be kind to yourself and accept that it is going to take some time to recover. Book a holiday, or at least plan some time to let the whole event sink in. It is going to take time to process so just be kind to yourself and give yourself all the time you need.

3.   Choose a new goal

It does not need to be just after you cross the finish line but, when you are ready, start thinking about what is next and put a new goal in place. Maybe it is coming back next year, or maybe it is something else entirely. Either way, putting a new goal in place will give you something to look forward to and work towards.

What tips do you have for preparing your mind for an ultra race?

Jazz and Lizzy