Jake Lovelock, one of Cognacity’s Psychologists completed a 24-hour ultra-marathon. Last week he posted some common questions that his fellow competitors had about caffeine use. Here, Jake recommends how to prepare for and manage the mental challenges of participating in an ultra-endurance event. Though he talks specifically about ultra-running, his advice can be applied to many areas of life.
Before he gives his recommendations, we’re sure everyone is curious about how it went. He ran 161 kilometres in 24 hours. He finished 8th in his category, and 9th out of the 133 competitors.
Jake writes the following:
One interesting fact in the world of psychology is that when we distance ourselves from our emotions, they impact us less. By anticipating emotions in advance of a challenge , we start to recognise them for what they are – nothing more than simple electrical signals.
There are many signals that your brain will throw around during a 24hour event like dread, pain in the feet or knees, fatigue or anxiety. Our brain might ordinarily interpret those signals as signs we should stop, but they are simply suggestions on how we should act.
I did this by using a simple chart to predict my mood (see below). This was my first ultra event, so I wanted to keep my Y axis generic, though if you’re more experienced you may be able to substitute that with other sensations you may commonly experience like fatigue, anxiety etc.
Ask yourself: how am I going to feel during the race? At what point will those sensations be most intense? How will those sensations make me feel physically and mentally?
By doing this we start to recognise that feeling like a 1/10 is a sign that you’re working hard enough, and is all part of a successful competition.
Next, I spent some time anticipating the thoughts I was likely to have over the course of the run. The idea being anticipating them before the event minimises their impact on our behaviour during the event.
Thoughts and emotions are heavily connected to each other and can sometimes unhelpfully drive behaviour. What does that voice in your head say?
For example, it might say “We’ve got lots of running left and I’m feeling quite tired” or before the event it might say “I’m looking forward to this, I hope I don’t trip over the start line”.
Knowing I would have many of these thoughts over 24 hours I prepared some responses using the TIC TOC exercise. First, we recognise what thought is likely to appear that might pull us away from our goal (the TIC) and use the noticing of that thought to replace it with a new thought (the TOC) for example…
Practice feeling rotten:
A fantastic fellow competitor signed up to the event with me; a fit and experienced runner. After 90 kilometres he was experiencing significant shooting pain up his leg. He had been working towards this specific event for over 8 months and had to stop. He headed back to camp, spent some time with first-aid and was sent to bed. After a couple hours of sleep, he managed to stand up, and start running again. It was slow and painful, but with the time he had left he managed to complete 100 kilometres.
He was ready to feel rotten.
But this preparedness wasn’t a coincidence. During training, he would regularly seek experiences that made him uncomfortable. For example, on one day, he chose not to go to sleep, to go for a two-hour training run between 02:30 and 04:30, and stay awake until the following night.
Practising feeling uncomfortable can be a tremendous source of resilience. With practice, we start to view discomfort or ‘feeling rotten’ as an opportunity to grow rather than just another setback. This runner was familiar with extreme fatigue and with running after minimal sleep. What can you do to seek discomfort or replicate race day stressors?
Break the challenge down into a series of small steps
Lastly, I managed my 24 hour marathon the same way I advise my clients when treating depression, by using ‘graded task assignments’. I deconstruct the challenge by breaking it down into what might feel like patronisingly small steps. In depression, the task might be to get out of the house for a 10-minute walk. To do this, together we would break down all the necessary steps to make that happen; get dressed, grab the keys, put some comfortable shoes on, open the front door, step outside and so on.
Using the same logic, I reframed my challenge to be a lot of smaller runs, at my lowest ebb I was just trying to get to the next tree, or taking one more step, as opposed to thinking about another 13 hours to go. The exercise helps us focus. I was focused on simply getting to the next tree. Then the next. Eventually, the next tree was the last tree. No more a feat than the 10 minute walk for the client suffering from depression, just with a lot more knee pain.
Jake Lovelock MSc, MBPsS, Performance and Wellbeing Psychologist