Developing mental fortitude for endurance sport

Trail running Bennie Roux The Munga Trail mental strength endurance endurance sports

Bennie Roux challenges himself over a 400km non-stop trail route from Belfast to the Blyderiver Canyon. Photo: Erik Vermeulen

Bennie Roux sent shock waves into the world of endurance sport when he crossed the finish first at The Munga Trail, on 23 April 2017. This was not your average trail race and involved 400km of non-stop trail running.

While there are great physical demands required to take on a challenge as epic as this, many post-race comments indicated that up to 80% of the race was a mental game.

What is the art to developing mental fortitude? And how much of a role does the mind play in an athlete’s performance?

The 38-year old Pretorian, who is the epitome of mental strength, shares key advice with endurance athletes about building the mental capacity to endure.

Included are comments from Clinton Gähwiler, who runs the psychology practice of the Sports Science Institute of South Africa (SSISA) in Newlands, Cape Town.

Trail running Bennie Roux The Munga Trail mental strength endurance endurance sports

Bennie Roux at the Three Rondavels viewpoint. He was now on the final stretch of The Munga Trail, just after the 390km mark. Photo: Sven Musica

The role of the athlete’s mind

Ultimately it is the mind that determines whether everything that has been trained in over the months and years, is able to be let out on the day, when it matters most. The higher up the performance levels one goes, the more important this aspect becomes, as physically, competitors become increasingly similar. – Clinton Gähwiler

Your mind is the CORE of everything. Every single choice you make, whether good or bad – your mind controls it all.

Your mind is also your safety mechanism and will always look for the easiest way out. It will stop you when you push too hard.  The primary function of the mind is to survive, and this is where athletes have the greatest obstacle.

You have to override your thoughts and trick your own mind if you want to push harder and finish or win a race.

I began to really depend on my mental strength from the second night of The Munga Trail already, especially after stopping or sleeping in a race village and starting again on my own in the cold, dark night. It was very tempting to just stay there and wait for the other runners.

Developing mental strength

When you consider that fatigue is in fact an emotion, then we can start talking about how to manage one’s emotions better, and also how not to allow emotions to sway one inappropriately from one’s race plan– Clinton Gähwiler

I have a couple of tricks to ensuring a stronger mind.

When running next to any competitor, I will convince myself that I’m the stronger of the two. I then tell myself that I’m not only stronger, but also less fatigued.

During an ultra-race I remind myself that I entered the race for a reason, keep reminding myself what those reasons are.

Trail running Bennie Roux The Munga Trail mental strength endurance endurance sports trail shoes

Bennie Roux less than 2km from the end of The Munga Trail, and impressed with his Vivobarefoot trail shoes and Injinji socks. Photo: Sven Musica

Mental strength starts with training

The first step is to define what mental fortitude mean to you, and then to break that down to specific skills than can be acquired and practiced. – Clinton Gähwiler

We often argue that a decrease in performance is the result of physical fatigue. This is caused by less oxygen reaching the muscles, a build-up of lactic acid, and our legs eventually tiring.

This doesn’t, however, explain instances when you feel depleted, but still go faster in the last stretch of a race. If your muscles were truly shot, going faster would be impossible.

Physical training is very important. I did a couple of night runs that started at 12am. It helped me during the event to know that I’d prepared for the race. But it doesn’t end there.

It’s much harder to develop mental strength during training because it’s very tempting to postpone your hard days.

I find it best to do really tough sessions with training partners. It’s a lot harder to postpone or cancel when you’re accountable to each other. Get up and go out, no excuses.

We want to be training (or tricking) the brain to allow the body to go harder and push past physical limits

But how?

The brain can be taught to give the body more slack by incrementally pushing past that perceived maximal level in training. The same way you train your body, you must also train your mind.

My advice is to just embrace pain!  It is, after all, just weakness leaving the body.

I often search for memes and motivational posters on the internet, read books like Born to Run or Eat and Run, which also help me gain the motivation to push harder during peak training weeks.

Trail running Bennie Roux The Munga Trail mental strength endurance endurance sports

Bennie Roux on the last 18km of The Munga Trail. He described this as the most technical part of the race, and after 390km had to heavily depend on his mental strength. Photo: Sven Musica

Expecting the worse, and doing it anyway

Mental fortitude in endurance events can be defined as the ability to keep going in the face of difficult internal (like fatigue) and external (like being passed by a competitor) circumstances. – Clinton Gähwiler

I was very nervous to enter The Munga Trail, I almost waited for it to be cancelled.

If I’m honest, the reason for this was because I was scared. Because I had never taken on a challenge like this before, I made up my mind to expect the worse, and deal with it. I expected water points not to be ready, I expected to get lost, I expected to be tested to the core. I can carry on and list all my doubts about the race.

When you expect things to be tough, you can only be surprised when those expectations don’t actually realise.

Persevering when things don’t go right

Learn to stay focused in the present, and not to indulge in judgement of the past. During the race, it is purely about doing the absolutely best you can with every given moment, while resisting the urge to judge the moment as being either good or bad. Save that for the post-race debrief. – Clinton Gähwiler

This happened to me during The Munga Trail on the last stretch at about 392km (only 20 to go). I went off course for about 4km, and suddenly, was in second place.

I had to close a gap.  Because I ran on tar road when I went off course, when I got back on the trail I reassured myself that it was much better to be running on trails. All I had to do was to keep pushing just until I could see the leader again.

These moments are really tough. Your mind wants to tell you to give up and blame the mistake. 

Your mind will always look for excuses. All you need is that one excuse to explain why you didn’t finish a race. Be very aware of these excuses, and refuse to accept them!

Trail running Bennie Roux The Munga Trail mental strength endurance endurance sports

Quite relieved to have finished the race. Bennie Roux is the embodiment of mental strength! Photo: The Munga Trail

Channeling those pre-race nerves

To the right degree, nerves can focus you. If overly intense, however, they can waste energy and negatively impact on your attention, and cause unnecessary muscle tension. – Clinton Gähwiler

It is almost impossible not to be nervous, even if you’re standing on the start line as the favourite.

I convince myself that nerves are going to help me, it helps gets my mind in the zone for racing.

I believe that everything happens for a cause, and if nervousness is something that comes naturally, it must be good.

Using past failures and small victories

As a parting shot, I cannot stress this enough.

The times that I’ve failed have made me stronger. Cliché, but true.

In December 2016 at the Cape Town Ultra Trail, I experienced my first DNF. I’m convinced, absolutely CONVINCED, that it made me stronger! I don’t ever want to quit again, death before DNF.

Celebrating the small victories really help build your confidence and mental strength too. Don’t just focus on the failures. People will laugh, but I often race the Park Run (5km) against school boys. But I even use that to build my confidence.

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