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Is Ultra Distance Running More a Mental or Physical Challenge?

[Hey folks, below you will see the first article by Joe Prusaitis, a veteran ultra runner from Texas. Joe has significant experience on a wide range of running topics and we are stoked to share some of them right here on EB!  – David]

According to Yogi Berra, ‘baseball is ninety percent mental and the other half is physical’. Yes, he knew it didn’t add up, but it never does. To be ready to run a very long ways, it seems to be approximately 90% physical and the other half mental. But then it changes late in the run.

People in the best physical condition sometimes perform way under expectations. Just as surprising is an unexpected over the top performance from someone who is not in the best physical shape. The importance of one attribute versus the other is hard to quantify.

Coaches have been trying to dial in the days, times, and percentages of specific training techniques mixed with rest and recovery between each session for a very long time. Intervals, fartleks, tempo, hills, speed, dexterity, and strength all mixed according to a recipe that makes you run faster and farther. For the longest time, the entire process was all about physical training.

Somewhere along the way, the mental aspect of the equation started to be evaluated and plugged into the training process. I grew up with phrases like ‘He has good game’, ‘He just doesn’t have it’, and ‘He’s a clutch player’. What IT was is hard to define exactly but I think IT is a strong attitude and a mental toughness. More thought goes into the mental part of running now. A race strategy covers everything from energy management to simple positive thinking. It’s so much more complicated than that, but then again, it depends on who you are. We all play a fair amount of mental games while on the run and depending on your history, this could be well developed or just a few tricks.

Some people are more driven than others, but how do you define what drives them. Are they tougher, more focused, goal-oriented (must complete a task they have set out for themselves), bull-dogged (won’t let go of what they are locked into), refuse-to-quit (just cannot quit anything), or go-till-they’re-dead determined? I could put names to a few people I know who fit this mold exactly and I’d need a shrink to tell me why they are that way. I also know a few extremely talented runners who seem to quit real easy. The previous group couldn’t quit if their life depended on it, and sometimes it does. That’s the other side of this equation – knowing when to say ‘this is enough’! Is it wise to climb over a mountain during a lightning storm just because you have never DNFed before?

My wife Joyce likes to talk about her ‘List of Reasons to Quit’. The way she tells it: You have to write down a list of all the reasons that are valid for you to quit. You cannot use things such as ‘My stomach hurts’, ‘I have a blister’, or ‘I don’t feel good’. It has to be reasons such as ‘I broke my leg’, ‘I have a concussion’, or ‘I’m hypothermic’. A few blisters and a little blood is no big deal. Anyway, when you are going through a bad moment – check the list! The mental toughness it takes to do the training is the same mental toughness it takes to keep going when a run gets tough. I like the phrase, ‘If you are going through Hell – Keep going’.

I attempted to run the Hardrock 100 a few years ago without doing the proper training. I had already run the race a few times and figured I could get it done by the strength of what I knew and my experience on the course. I knew I was tough enough and would not quit when things went bad and I knew it would get bad. It was another of those self-tests I like to throw at myself every now and then. Usually they don’t make much sense to anybody but me, but sometimes I pull one off and surprise myself. Part of it is my willingness to try something I am not altogether certain I can do. I never did get over-confident or even slightly comfortable with the idea that I was going to finish the race, but I did surprise myself by how far I got.

I was so miserable with blisters, rash, edema, diarrhea, queasy stomach, puking, and sleep deprivation but I refused to quit. Each aid station wished me well with sad eyes, hoping I’d quit soon and stop the self inflicted misery. But I couldn’t. As much as I wanted to miss each cutoff or have a medical person tell me it was too much, I kept clearing the cutoffs and kept going. This race gives you 48 nonstop hours: two days and two nights. I was within the last two miles when I finally missed a cutoff: the final one at the finish line. So I did finish the race but not within the required time limit. Mentally I had the strength, but physically I was not ready and knew it.

It is a subtle balance of physical and mental that makes us each who we are, and it is constantly changing. Late in just about any hundred miler, I’ll reach a point when the race stops being driven by my body and starts being driven by my mind.

Early on, my body on auto-pilot, my mind asleep, it’s a repetitive process of eat, drink, and run. Autopilot is interrupted when my mind wakes to discover a few minor breakdowns in the system: a hiccup in my giddy-up, an ache in my back, queasiness in my tummy, or a blister on my foot. The breakdown takeover is usually not a smooth and fluid change in command. Self-evaluation kicks into gear and a plan to remedy the problem formulates. I may have to stop or even sit down, but the checklist of reasons to stop causes a ripple such that I try to solve the problem without stopping. There are times when the shift from physical to mental takeover is a magical seamless occasion, when everything is going according to plan, but this is rare and enlightening.

When approaching the finish line of almost any race, I reach a point of ‘Smelling the Barn’. It’s a unique and rare moment when suddenly all my troubles (mental or physical) disappear. I’m suddenly starting all over, rested and ready, with only so far to go. One last downhill or one last ridge, it doesn’t matter, and there is no figuring when or why it happens as it does. But oh my, when it does, get out of the way, because I want to run and run fast. You just hope that whatever it is that is fueling this energy is enough to take you all the way to the finish. If it isn’t, you may have just unloaded every reserve you had and not be much closer than you were when it began.

Trying to stay in tune and listen to the body is part of the whole balancing act. Is my achilles talking to me or is it just whining? Should I listen to it? An old trail running axiom I heard a long time ago, goes something like this: “If it’s an ache – ignore it. If it’s a sharp pain – listen”. I am no doctor so I don’t know the truth of it, but I have used it many times. I will occasionally have these conversations with my body. Talking to my achilles or my back: ‘Just shut-up – I aint stoppin’, ‘Nope, as a matter of fact – I’m goin faster’, and ‘I still ain’t listenin’. I like to go through a complete checklist while running, checking off each body part which is redundant when I know the problem will let me know regardless. Have you ever had a blister that silently waited until you were done? Yea, I know it does happen, but it’s rare. The body usually lets you know when there is a problem.

I like to think in terms of personal energy. It’s very strong in some of us and yet, for some, it’s strong only at certain times. We use each other’s energy to power us up without thinking about it, and you can have your drive sucked out of you if you aren’t careful. A high energy group can buoy each other for many miles, when they might have struggled a bit more by going solo. Whatever you do, don’t invite a whiney ol’ energy-killing nay-sayer to your crew. And sometimes, it’s just you who is bringing the bad juju and need some help to escape your own funk.

At all times, I try to find that perfect place in my mental well-being where I am content and comfortable. Late in a long run, this is doubly difficult, but still a place I search for.

It’s funny how some unpleasant things can drive you too. An irritating voice or conversation can drive me to run faster, a dog that keeps running underfoot, or an extremely strong anger. It certainly isn’t positive, but it works. I know a few who, while going through a divorce or losing a job, suddenly find a new gear they didn’t have before. As much as I prefer to live on the sunny side, the dark side has some strong energy as well. But, do you really want to go there?

The physical and mental can both be broken down into even smaller subcategories by my sport psychologist son-in-law who has lots of fun debating the benefits and pitfalls of each component. The Balance, fluidity, strength, agility, endurance, and speed balanced by the spiritual, emotional, and intellectual. Physically, everything must work and work well. Mentally, it runs the gamut of good, bad, and different. With all the variables to tune and adjust, it’s as hard to dial in the perfect run as it is to repeat it once you’ve done it. And because everyone of us is so different, we are all experimenting on ourselves exclusively.

I like to think of ultra distance running as mostly mental. But you sure as hell better be physically ready for what your mind is about to do. And we have yet to open the nutritional can of worms.

– Joe Prusaitis

[Talk some Dirt]

  • What importance do you place on the mind when you run?
  • How has your mind helped or hindered you during a running adventure?
  • If your mind turns sour, how have you redirected your thoughts to the task at hand?

About the author

Joe Prusaitis Joe Prusaitis ran his first trail race in 1996, a 50 miler. Since then, he has ran at least 100 ultras, nearly 50 marathons, and a variety of other odd and various distances. Joe also sits on the USAT&F South Texas board, representing Mountain/Trail/Ultra. For more information on Joe, check out the About page where you can see his coaching and race directing projects.

5 Responses to “Is Ultra Distance Running More a Mental or Physical Challenge?”

  1. on 15 May 2012 at 8:36 am olga

    Granted, without physical the performance will still be sub-par, but without mental it’ll be non-existent. And the longer we go, the more important mental becomes. Great writings! I agree in general to the list of “when to quit”, although I prefer not to have one:) Bull-head and stubbornness are very good attributes of those who trained their asses off.

  2. on 16 May 2012 at 6:11 am Steve

    I really enjoyed reading this. I would like to add to your list of what drives people: resiliency, how you you deal with a difficult situation out on a course and in life. I think that is a major part of what the long training runs does in training the mental aspect.

  3. on 16 May 2012 at 7:28 am David Hanenburg

    Olga – I am not surprised you don’t have a quit-list. 🙂

    Steve – Nice thoughts. I think the long run also provides opportunities to work on those problem solving skills for when an “opportunity” shows its face in a race. Instead of ignoring or freaking out, you can accept and solve.

  4. on 16 May 2012 at 11:07 am Steven Moore

    Hey Joe! Are you mentally AND physically ready for HR100 this year? I’m hoping you’ll see me on top of Kroger’s this time!
    And yes, lots of mental component to a successful ultra! It’s not true suffering if we’ve chosen to do it to ourselves. Suck it up Buttercup!

  5. on 29 May 2012 at 10:00 am Steve Holehan

    Well said, Joe.

    I think the mind pushes us beyond perceived physical limits.

    I seem to run faster and stronger when the race has time limits.

    I always land better on the narrow, shorter runways.