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Developing Mental Toughness As An Ultra Runner

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By Jim P.

Athletes often say about their sports performance, It’s all mental.”

In other words, many athletes have a similar set of physical skills and capacities, but what often enables one athlete to perform better than another is “mental” — things such as preparation, confidence, focus, calm, resiliency, determination, and self-control.


Which raises the question, can anyone run distances of 50 or 100 miles?

What separates the person who runs a 26.2-mile marathon from someone who runs a race like Badwater, a 135-mile footrace through California’s Death Valley, or the Spartathlon, a 153-mile ultramarathon race held annually in Greece, or Vol State, a 314-mile multi-day race in the Southeast U.S.

What makes the difference? Mental toughness.

In ultra-running mental toughness is the key ingredient.

Almost any person can train their body to run a marathon. But it takes a unique and well-developed mental toughness to conquer the longer distances.

In this article I want to share some thoughts on what mental toughness is, and how to develop it.


Mental Toughness As A Runner

There are 3 areas of mental toughness worth considering when it comes to ultra-running:

  • Preparation
  • Discipline
  • Tenacity


#1 – Preparation: Be an ultra-running sage

You can peruse the Internet and quickly find a simple training plan for couch potato to 5k, half-marathon and beyond – just click the link and follow the plan. But to succeed in running ultramarathons requires a much more substantial knowledge in areas such as training philosophies, nutrition, and sports science.

Ultra-running isn’t just about running mileage. It’s also about the time and energy you invest in educating yourself.

Running 50, 100, 150, or 300 miles isn’t something to take lightly or haphazardly — or do on a whim. It takes a tremendous amount of mental effort in the area of educating oneself and preparation.

To speak of ultra-running as a “hobby” may be missing the level of commitment it requires, especially in this mental area of preparation.

Speak to most serious ultra-runners and you will find they have developed great expertise in areas such as: physiology (exercise physiology), psychology (sport psychology), anatomy, biomechanics, biochemistry, biokinetics, and a host of issues related to nutrition, recovery/rest, and other areas.

It will take time to explore these areas. I recently wrote a part 1 and part 2 series of posts on ultra-running nutrition.

My challenge to you in this area of mental toughness is to become an ultra-running sage. Think about it. A sage is a profoundly wise person – someone with the highest level of knowledge in their field. Likewise, successful ultra-runners are people who have developed a highly specialized wisdom and knowledge in the areas related to ultra-running. This is the first component of mental toughness people need to succeed in running ultramarathons.

Do you have a year-round training philosophy and plan? What are you doing in the area of nutrition? How do you incorporate recovery and rest in your training? Have you investigated the biomechanics of running in terms of your own form and gait? Have you selected the right running shoe for you?

These are a few important questions to sort out through research and trial and error. Do your homework. Understand some of the core principles and wisdom when it comes to ultra-running. Find what works for you. Take individual responsibility and ownership of your utra-running interests. Give conscious and educated direction to your approach and plan. Be an ultra-running sage.


#2 – Discipline: Be a runner with integrity

If you do the proper amount of preparation and become that ultra-running sage, then you will have mastered the knowledge and wisdom in matters such as your training philosophy, nutrition, recovery and rest.

So far so good. However, if you do not consistently put this wisdom and knowledge into practice day in, day out then it won’t matter. What is needed is the mental toughness of discipline and dedication.

Here’s a secret among successful ultra-runners: they don’t cut corners. They stick to the plan — ALL of the plan.

Weaker-minded runners will put in the running mileage but blow off being disciplined in areas such as nutrition, recovery, and rest. As a result, they do not achieve optimal results, and often regress in their training and performance or get injured.

Do your research, educate yourself, develop a comprehensive training plan (including nutrition, recovery and rest) and stick to the plan! That’s the integrity I’m speaking of. Keeping your word to yourself in terms of following the philosophy and plan you’ve created.

Training with integrity is about discipline and dedication to your training regimen. Consistency is key.

Weaker-minded runners do not have this kind of mental toughness of discipline, consistency, and dedication. This doesn’t mean that your training can’t be fun and include diversity, spontaneity, and passion. But the bottom line is to have the mental toughness to plan the work and work the plan.

Discipline and consistency are 2 keys to ultramarathon running. You may achieve lesser goals without them, but you won’t be running Badwater, Spartathon or Vol State without them.

Runners who are disciplined do not skip training sessions, carelessly over-train, or slip back into unhelpful eating habits. Runners of integrity are able to control their behavior to adhere to the guidelines and goals they set for themselves. A disciplined runner follows his or her training plan — including those back-to-back runs when you’re tired and sore, or want to sleep in on Saturday morning.

Discipline leads to consistency. Discipline helps you make the right choice for your goals today, then tomorrow, then the next day, and so you become consistent in your behavior. Discipline keeps you consistent also because you do not let your emotions or obstacles prevent you from pursuing your goal and making the right decision. That’s the kind of integrity ultra-runners must have.

Be that runner with integrity who follows the plan one day, one run, one meal, one recovery measure at a time.


#3 – Tenacity: Be a badass

Face it, there’s a bit of madness to anyone who wants to run 50, 100, 300+ miles. Own it. Be proud of it. Develop it. Use it.

Running ultra-distances pushes a person to the very edge and limit of themselves — both psychologically and physically. It can be grueling and painful. Why do we do it? Because we’re loving every wonderful, horrible minute of this.

There is a “badass” mentality to the mental toughness of an ultra-runner.

Ultramarathon runner Dean Karnazes says, “The human body has limitations. The human spirit is boundless.”

Karnazes has written quite a bit about mental toughness and ultra-running, including this part 1 and part 2 series. He explains that if you’re going to explore the boundaries of human endurance, you have to learn to adapt to more and more pain.

To prepare for the searing heat of the Badwater race, Karnazes went on 30-mile jogs wearing a ski parka over a wool sweater. Crazy, right? But this is the kind of “crazy” or tenacity we need to succeed as ultra-runners. It means being able to keep on performing whilst in extreme discomfort.

What you’re physically capable of in an endurance environment is more determined by your mental strength than your physical capabilities. Your body can go beyond what your physical perceptions of tiredness or fatigue are. Your brain will be telling you “You’re tired. Stop.” It’s trying to stop you from killing yourself. The mental limitations kick in before the physical limitations.

Navy Seal ultra-runner David Goggins adheres to the 40% rule of Navy Seal mental toughness. Ultra-running is an extreme endurance sport that taxes and stresses the body. You have to be tenacious. Being mentally tough means that no matter how brutal the circumstances — even if it’s your 14th hour running through a desert in temperatures well over 100F — you’re able to withstand the pain and suffering and perform to the best of your skills and talents.

This kind of tenacity is resilient and adaptable.

Things don’t always go as planned. Let’s say you wake up on Saturday morning for your long run and it’s pouring rain. So! Run in the pouring rain… or the snow. The ability to bounce back from adversity, pain, or a disappointing performance is also the tenacity that is critical to ultra-running success.

The mentally tough runner can realize and admit a mistake, understand a missed opportunity, isolate the lesson, and quickly move on to focus on the immediate goal ahead. It also involves the ability to focus in the face of distractions or unexpected circumstances.




In practical terms, ask yourself these 3 questions on a regular basis:

  1. Am I an ultra-running sage?
  2. Am I a runner with integrity?
  3. Am I badass?

This is the mental roughness we need as ultra-runners – preparation, discipline and tenacity.

Focus on each of these 3 areas and you will see yourself succeed as an ultra-runner.

  • Continue educating yourself in areas related to ultra-running.
  • Stick to your plan one day at a time.
  • Be intentional about doing things that test and develop your tenacity.