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Get your Mental Game on

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How to keep your brain sharp, motivated and trail strong

Somewhere on a rock shelf in the grand canyon, I am slumped in exhaustion with a lump in my throat. I just ran 43 miles from the south rim to the north rim, and almost back again. i must be close to the finish, but all i see is darkness. it is after 1 a.m. and i started running at 5 a.m.—yesterday morning.

Mental focus is all I have to push me forward. I dig deep for a mantra, and find one from a poem by Trisha Reeves:

  • Run close to the mountain
  • Stay a heartbeat away
  • Cover the low moon with your wings
  • And walk tomorrow’s miles today

Repeating it brings me back to the present and gives me the energy to climb out of the canyon. Mental toughness is crucial for trail runners. On the trail, your brain can make, or break, you.

The Foundation
Mary Gillis is a researcher in bio-behavioral sciences at Columbia University with a specialization in physi- ology and kinesiology; she has done extensive work on the mental aspects of physical activity in athletes, and says that mental training is “the very foundation that allows us to improve our athleticism, skill set and performance.” Gillis speaks of a concept she calls “self-efficacy,” defined as “one’s perceived ability to complete a task and the personal satisfaction achieved as a result of completing the task.”

> Here’s how it works on the trail

  1. Tell yourself you can run a certain distance and/or time.
  2. Go out, achieve your goal and feel good about your accomplishment.
  3. This motivates you to believe that you can run farther and/or faster.
  4. Complete your goal and feel good about it.
  5. This inspires you to believe that you can run even farther and/or faster. The cycle continues.

Your driving motivation as a trail runner, says Cindra S. Kamphoff, Ph.D., who specializes in the psychology of running, can be intrinsic (joy of the experience) and/or extrinsic (value the outcome).

“When you are motivated by intrinsic factors,” she says, “you are more likely to sustain behavior over time.”

Still, we all run into similar mental obstacles out there.

Overcome Obstacles
Two common obstacles for trail runners are Mental exhaustion and race jitters.Says Kamphoff, “By the time some runners start a race, they are mentally exhausted from negative thinking.” Counter this by replacing negative thoughts with positive ones. For example, instead of thinking,

“I am not prepared for this race. it is going to go horribly,” try, “I have Worked hard to get to this point, and Will do the best With What I have today.”

This technique takes practice, so stick with it.

For alleviating race jitters and mental exhaustion and silencing negativity, Kamphoff recommends a cleansing breath technique: Breathe in for six seconds, hold the breath for two seconds, then exhale for seven seconds.

Kamphoff also stresses the importance of staying in the moment. This means thinking about how you will feel in the next few miles. “Calm your mind by controlling your inner chatter. Accept how you are feeling and adjust,” she says. This may involve altering your pace, stride or nutrition.

When ultrarunner Joel Ballezza of Seattle, Washing- ton, struggles with mental exhaustion, he employs sev- eral practical techniques to stay present. “I break down a run into manageable segments and don’t think about the distance to the finish line,” he says. “For example, I will focus on just the miles to the next aid station or the steps until I complete the next climb.”

He also gives himself small rewards during the run. “While I sometimes carry a MP3 play- er, I don’t turn it on until the end of a race,” he says. “The music delivers an energy boost when I need it most.”

Elite trail runner Max King of Bend, Oregon, looks at mental challenges as opportunities to grow. “At times, as an endurance athlete, you simply have to suck it up and fight through it. It takes enormous mental strength, and a mental low point can offer a great tool to help you become stronger.”

As a race director who also boasts more than 40 podium finishes, Keira Henninger of Orange County, California, depends on her mental prowess. She uses mantras to power her through tough patches. A mantra is a phrase or group of words that can be repeated out loud or chanted in your head with the purpose of motivating and inspiring.

“Mantras should be specific to you and represent what you want to accomplish,” says Kamphoff. “They should be short and instructional. They should be positive and easy to remember.”
Before the 2012 Angela’s Crest 100- Miler where she placed first female, Henninger sat on the bathroom floor in her cabin, folded her fingers tightly and quietly repeated the following mantra three times: “Today you will have the strength of five ox, the speed of three cheetahs and the belief that no matter what happens—you will persevere.”

Feed Your Head
Even the greatest mantra won’t do any good unless you’re fueling your brain. According to Gillis, late stages of exercise—such as the last miles of a trail race—are associated with increases in certain types of hormones including epinephrine, cortisol, glucagons and growth hormone, among others.

“Increased tryptophan in particular will affect mental strength because it gets converted to a chemical in the brain called serotonin. Sero- tonin is responsible for what’s called ‘central’ (brain) fatigue and makes you feel as if you’re working harder than you actu- ally are,” she says. “This will negatively affect motivation levels and mood. Proper nutri- tion is key to avoiding such a serotonin increase.”

Glucose intake is important. Like your muscles, your brain needs glucose to function. “The exact amount of carbo- hydrate intake depends on the individual and the intensity of exercise. Most studies show that 25 to 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour of exercise is sufficient to improve a sustained perfor- mance at 70 to 75 percent of VO2 max,” says Gillis. “Eating too many carbohydrates can result in high glucose concentrations in the blood, a con- dition known as hyperglycemia, which will increase your anxiety levels and make it more difficult to concentrate.”

Pre-race and during exercise, eat what your body can easily digest, such as a sports drink, whole-grain bagel or banana. Avoid foods that will give you gastrointestinal issues, and avoid combining the pre-race carbohydrate with fatty foods, which are harder for the body to break down. For instance, if your pre-race meal is a whole-grain bagel, avoid putting butter, cream cheese or peanut butter on it.

Every run is an opportunity to incorporate mental training. Be patient. mental focus comes with time and experience.

Just as it can take months (or years!) to shave time off your 5K PR, it will take time to find your mental groove. But when you do, you are in for some unforgettable trail runs.

Vanessa is an ultra trail runner and freelance writer. Follow her at


5 mental training goals for your next trail run

  1. Work to stay in the moment. focus on the present.
  2. Strive to control your mind. are your thoughts helping or hindering you?
  3. Transform negative thoughts into positive ones.
  4. Use imagery. imagining a strong performance makes you more likely to accomplish it.
  5. Devise a mantra and recite it to yourself throughout your run or race.