Increasing Your Mental Load On A Training Run

Getting miles in your legs is obviously super important to prepare for an ultra (or any race, for that matter). But the ‘ordinary’ long, slow run, while great physical prep, can be pimped even further to prepare you mentally for race day.

On the day of your race, chances are your mental load will be much higher than during your training. You’ll be running in a place that’s unfamiliar. You’ll have the added stress of other runners around you. You have to navigate, calculate your pace, keep an eye on checkpoint cut-offs, remember to eat and drink at regular intervals. All of which is extra mental work that can sap your motivation and willpower, and make it more difficult to carry on when you’re flagging.

So what can you do to prepare for this? You can’t just stage races for every long run you do. (Well, you could book yourself a race every week, but this would get a bit dear and the family might get a bit tired of you shooting off every Saturday.)

Luckily, there are some easy ways to practice running with increased mental load, so you get used to the feeling and are familiar with it come race day. My awesome coach Andy Mouncey (who, by the way, you should check out at Big And Scary Running and book and work with because he’s brilliant) has drummed into me that great mental prep is all about recreating, as closely as possible, the conditions that you can expect to deal with on race day, so you are more confident with them.

My steps to increase mental load are are follows:

  1. map
    A radius around my house, handy for choosing new routes.

    Run in a place you are unfamiliar with. This might be a new bit of trail you’ve never run before, if you’re lucky enough to have tons of unexplored trail on your doorstep. If you’re in a city, as I am, you could go to a site like Business Map Centre and use their super handy radius calculator to find a radius around your home of around the distance you want to run. Then go to a place on the outside of the circle with which you are unfamiliar, and navigate home using a map. This immediately makes you think more than just plodding round the local park or your ‘normal’ route for the umpteenth time.

  2. When you’re on your run, arrange with your partner or a friend/family member to call you while you’re running and ask you questions that require a good deal of thought and/or calculation to answer. These might be mental arithmetic, word games, or recollection of detailed chunks of information. One of my friends is particularly good at coming up with fun, challenging things to ask me. Things I have found which work well are:
  • Mental arithmetic (268+192, 77-29 etc etc).

    All the months of the year with a U in them? So that’s… January, February… Err…
  • Maths problems – What day will Christmas fall on this year? If a train leaves a station travelling at 30 miles an hour, how long will it take to reach a station 280 miles away? etc.
  • Retelling the plots of films and books.
  • Word games – Spelling words backwards, identifying the letters that two words have in common, giving synonyms and antonyms for words, playing ‘I went to market’ with the caller.

The actual answers to the questions aren’t that important. Running while answering these kinds of problems and navigating is very hard, and you’ll get some of them wrong as a matter of course.The important part is that you get used to running while simultaneously taxing your brain by doing calculations and recalling complex information, and navigating.

Don’t have a friend who’ll do this for you? No problem, just record a voice file on your phone with mental arithmetic questions or word games in advance and play it to yourself over your headphones while you’re running. Give yourself 30 seconds-2 minutes or so pause between questions to give yourself a chance to answer, and obviously don’t learn the answers before hand!

The combination of navigation and problem-solving will massively increase your mental load and get you used to running with the increased load. Sounds nutty? Yeah, it is! But it’s also really fun, shakes up your long runs, and is a really great way to get yourself used to running while under increased mental strain.

Have a great time, and enjoy your mind games!

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