James Stewart

A slight trick of the mind


Getting out of your own way can be the hardest thing in our sport. Especially when in ultra-running the lengths can be extreme in terms of both distance and time. And often both! There’s a lot of time be stuck with just your own thoughts.

It’s often said in ultras that the longer they go the more the success flips from physical to mental conditioning. I am not sure if this has been scientifically proven but ask any experienced ultra runner they will tell you that.

Just last week Damian Hall beat a longstanding Coast to Coast record by just 18 minutes (over a near 39 hour endeavour) and when you watched the videos of him pushing on whilst leaning like a badly built Pisa tower you just knew it was mind not body that was keeping him going.

Then, last year I had the pleasure of sharing some miles with Dan Lawson as he pushed for a sub 10 days LEJOG. I was there as he entered the last 20% and the mental fortitude I witnessed was like nothing I have ever witnessed. To be able to face into another DAY of pain in pursuit of a goal was just inspiring.

All of this comes from being in control of your mind. And accentuating the positivity whilst holding the negativity at bay. It is much deeper a subject than I can ever cover in just a short Sunday blog, but suffice to say there’s a few consistent traits that are worth considering.

  • Always have a why and lean on it when things get tough, try and make it something that grabs you emotionally
  • Have a mantra or other distraction technique to get your head away from thinking about any troughs you may be experiencing
  • Have someone who will drive some positive reinforcement into you. The kind of person who who radiates energy. In VO2 tests it has been proven time and time again if someone is offering a positive push the lactate threshold reached is higher
  • Positive self-talk is proven to improve time to fatigue or failure, and when overlaid with perspective (wow, that’s 100 miles already, and you are not stinking of decay yet!) it can be like a nitro button on a race car
  • My favourite one, remember it is just running and it is meant to be fun, for most of us anyway, if it is stressing you then try to recalibrate your relationship with it

The goatee stroking, cord wearing professors’ term for this is cognitive realignment. I prefer a slight trick of the mind as it is a lovely wee phrase and it is also the name of one my favourite ever Sherlock Holmes pastiches.

It is easy to lay down a bunch of things you could do, the real trick is to practice these in training. If this is part of your training habits and rituals it easily finds its way into your toolbox in your big events.

For example, I am often sick in longer runs. When it happens I celebrate it as it means that the inevitable has come and gone (hopefully). Or, when the pain comes, I remind myself that this is exactly what I have trained for. If I have a strong why, I wear something that reminds me of it, such as a band, badge etc. On a personal level I cannot be as fast and strong as the whippersnappers coming through, that’s just the stage in life I am at. It doesn’t mean I can’t try find an edge elsewhere, and watching people like Dan and Damian push on through reminds me that upstairs is a place to do some work on over the summer.

I hope that you find this useful. I’d love to hear from you with any feedback or if you even just want to drop me a wee message. I can be reached at jamesstewart13@aol.com or via social on Twitter @james_stewart13 or on Insta @jamesstewart13

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