How to Train Your Mind for a Stage Race: 4 Tips for a Solid Mindset on the Course
By Victor Zuniga: UESCA-certified Running Coach, Senior Writer For Marathon Handbook, Founder and Coach of 30 Grados Running Club in Costa Rica (and serial stage racer)
When you enter the realm of ultrarunning and stage races, there is only so much your body can do for you until you need to count on your mind to kick in and get you through the grueling hours on the stage race courses.
Waking up day after day, knowing you need to get back out there and give it your best, is not easy. You can be wholly prepared physically for the week-long daily distances to come. Still, it is just as important to prepare your mind.
Training your mind is crucial for a positive experience in your stage race, just as important as your long runs, speedwork, recoveries, and everything else in between.
As an experienced ultra and stage race runner and coach, I will give you my top tips to get you through your stage race using a great tool: your powerful mind.
Ready? Here we go!
4 Tips For A Solid Mindset On Raceday
#1: Break Up The Race
Even though a stage race is literally already broken up into separate sections, you can break each stage up into even smaller sections to help work your way through it more comfortably.
Each stage will feel much more manageable, broken up into small pieces.
Having only 6k to go before the next aid station feels a lot less overwhelming than counting the 38 kilometers you have left in that particular stage.
Depending on your preference, you can break up each stage in several different ways. I prefer to race from aid station to aid station, looking forward to a short break, getting that boost from an energy gel I'm dying for, or just seeing the smiling faces of the volunteers.
You can also break the race up into climbs and descents, notable points of interest, or your favorite sections if you are already familiar with the course.
For example, suppose your day three stage is forty kilometers long, and you have an aid station each 10k. In that case, you have three mini finish lines to enjoy before you reach the big one at the end of the stage.
Setting short, achievable goals will increase your dopamine levels and make you feel a sense of achievement each time you hit an aid station. This will motivate you to push through and get to that next aid station, only 10 more kilometers away, to achieve yet another goal.
#2: Repeat Mantras
For those unfamiliar with the term, a mantra is a word or phrase you can repeat to help you concentrate and/or meditate to aid in getting you through a difficult or stressful situation.
A few days into your stage race can have you feeling tired and fatigued, and rightfully so. Not just physically but perhaps even more so mentally.
This is where repeating your mantras can kick in and really give you the boost you need to keep on going and make it to the finish line.
Use mantras whenever the going gets tough for you.
It could be helpful during the first few kilometers of each stage as you try to warm up your body and mind, or maybe you'll need to use them sometime in the middle when you hit a rough patch or towards the end as you are trying to get through those last kilometers before the finish line.
Or, in my experience, running at night tends to get a bit tedious, and time seems to slow down. Repeating mantras during these sections of the stages really helps keep me focused and awake and makes the night run fly by.
No matter when you decide to use mantras, repeating these phrases over and over again aloud or to yourself will help you maintain a positive attitude and keep your mind and body in check.
Here are some examples of mantras to help you through your next stage race:
● This, too, shall pass.
● I am a strong, confident runner.
● I am. I can. I will. I do.
● One foot in front of the other.
If you can’t think of any specific phrases or words to repeat, counting your steps is also a great way to focus on something other than your discomfort, or negative thoughts that may flood your mind.
I often count in bouts of 30 steps, and then go back to 1 and start all over again. You can choose whichever number works best for you, or even begin to count steps starting and ending at different landmarks along the trails.
This brings us to our next tip where focus and being present can also help us through our tough times, practicing mindfulness.
#3: Practice Mindfulness
Another great way to distract yourself from the negative thoughts that can pop up during a stage race is to try and be in the moment and well aware of how you move and how you perceive your surroundings.
Focusing on your footsteps, breathing, the trail ahead, or just how the pack bounces on your back is a fantastic way to reduce stress and relax your body.
This form of meditation can help you manage pain or discomfort after those long hours of grinding through a stage race.
#4: Control Negative Thoughts
It's imperative to keep things positive.
Throughout most stage races, you will be exposed to extreme temperatures and challenging terrain, haul a heavy pack, and, in most cases, deal with some, or a lot of, discomfort.
Try not to focus on the scorching heat during a desert race, that never-ending climb or blister giving you a hard time.
Instead, focus on how great it will feel to get to that next aid station and cool off, get up and over that climb so you can crush those downhills you love so much, or simply cross the finish line and earn those bragging rights.
Just imagine the incredible happiness that will overwhelm you when you realize what you have accomplished. This in and of itself is a driving force to keep your mind positive and put one foot in front of the other.
Another way to control your negative thoughts is to smile. Physically smile. Even if you aren’t happy, smiling will make you feel just a bit better.
Now that you have my four tips for a solid mindset, how do you apply them to your training?
Let's take a look:
Training Your Mindset
There are three great ways to incorporate and put these great mind hacks to good use before that goal race.
You can use some or all of these previously explained tools during your regular training:
● Speedwork: If you or your coach has integrated hard or demanding speed workouts throughout your training schedule, this is an excellent opportunity to train your mindset with our mindfulness tip. Don't look at your watch toward the end of those tough bouts; go through the movements, and focus on the road ahead.
● Long Runs: Further along in your training cycle, your runs should get longer and more challenging. These long runs are perfect for practicing your mantras, especially if you pick a course with long hills, very technical terrain, or any other factor that might push you out of your comfort zone.
● B Races: Once your goal Stage Race is picked out, you might want to incorporate a few B races to catapult you towards that A race. These races are the perfect place to practice breaking the distance into smaller, more manageable sections and focusing on your positivity when the going gets tough.
Practice Makes Perfect
As an ultra-running coach, I recommend that my athletes train and progress gradually, not taking one giant leap directly into ultras and stage races. This is the safest way to take on one of these races and reach race day extremely well-prepared and injury-free.
If you have already signed up for your first stage race or ultra, it is possible to finish these challenging events without running shorter distances previously. But in most cases, this mental grit is something that must be trained or developed over time.
The more you are exposed to situations that can induce mental fatigue, the better you will get at dealing with your mind and overcoming rough patches in a race.
You’ve heard it a million times, but practice does make perfect, so the more experience you have, the tougher your mind will be come race day.
Keep these tips in mind during your next stage race or ultra; they will help you get through those rough spots and improve your overall experience, so you can enjoy these crazy events even more and help you look forward to your next big goal.