“Long-distance running is 90% mental, and the other half is physical.” – Rich Davies
While physical health and stamina are critical if you want to run 50 miles, 100 miles, and more, the limiting factors for many people are their character, daily habits, and the relationship they have with their mind.
Mental training should be an integral part of your training plan. Numerous approaches exist, and you might already be familiar with meditation and various visualization techniques.
However, to improve your mental game, you need more than simply putting aside 20 minutes every few days to visualize your desired outcome in a race.
What you need for long-lasting success is a philosophical framework to guide your daily actions and behaviors. Only when you embody the characteristics of a successful runner can you be one.
What Is Stoicism And Why Do You Need It?
Stoicism is a philosophical framework that has immense power to take your mental game to another level.
Founded by Zeno of Citium in Athens around 3BC, it is a philosophical framework that teaches us to be more resilient, resourceful, and wise.
And while many people mistakenly view stoic philosophy as being “emotionless,” “cold,” or “fatalistic,” nothing could be further from the truth. If you take a closer look, you will find its teachings serve as powerful guides to conquer any challenge life might throw at you.
And this, my dear reader, is one of the reasons modern professional sports, serial entrepreneurs, and the world’s most influential politicians of our age embrace it.
Read on to find out which five stoic concepts you too need to embrace if you want to take your running to the next level.
1. Focus On The Things You Can Control
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own . . .“ – Epictetus
Stoic philosophy teaches that the only thing that matters is your ability to discern what is in your control and what is not in your control.
And to focus your attention only on your choices and actions.
How can you apply this to your running?
First, become aware when you are focusing and worrying over things you can not control.
When you hate running in the rain, and it has been pouring down for days. Do you get upset? Do you wish it wasn’t so? Or do you accept the lousy weather, dress appropriately, and get out and do your runs without moaning?
Or you sign up for that dream race and set the goal to win your age group. Do you worry more about winning (which isn’t 100% in your control) or about training consistently?
Most importantly, however, is to realize you alone are in control of your running schedule.
This statement may sound harsh, but you need to acknowledge that you control your choices and reactions to outside events. Only then will you see if you align your actions with your priorities and the goals you say that matter to you. And only then are you honest with yourself.
This honesty will serve you well when you need to decide if you go for after-work drinks with your co-workers or say no to get your morning run in.
Or if you stay in bed because it is a dark, cold winter morning, or if you get up and push through the uncomfortable feeling of running before the sun is up.
When you focus on only the things you can control, you stop wasting time complaining, making excuses, or wishing things were different.
Instead, you solely focus on your actions and what you can do.
As a result, you get your runs in even though the circumstances aren’t perfect. You make sacrifices in other areas of your life.
You also are in control of how you manage your emotions.
Many people have a hard time grasping this concept. I, too, was hesitant to accept this. However, it is one of the most powerful lessons of stoic philosophy.
And what exactly is at its essence and how it can help you become a better runner, I will cover in the next section of this article.
2. Manage Your Emotions To Run Well
“Would you have a great empire? Rule over yourself.” – Publius Syrus
As I have mentioned in the introduction, many people mistakenly believe that practicing stoicism means become emotionless or cold.
But this is not what the Stoics propagated.
Instead, stoic philosophy teaches you to become aware of your emotions and act independently of them.
You are not a slave to your feelings and let a bad mood keep you from taking action on your goals.
You do the work, regardless.
In theory, that may sound easy. In practice, it is hard.
Stoic philosophy gives you a framework that simplifies the process of managing your emotions.
You see, your emotions are a two-stage process.
1. Involuntary Experience
This is the stage when your emotions arise.
You toe the starting line of your big race, and you feel anxiety arise.
You get harrassed on your training run, and fear and anxiety bubble up inside of you.
These feelings occur spontaneously. You have no control over them. It is your primal instinct taking over to protect yourself.
The stoics believed that these sensations are neither good nor bad.
2. Conscious Rationalization
In this stage, you examine your emotions.
You accept them and then decide what to do about it.
Let’s get back to our example of you being anxious at the start of your big race.
The first step is to understand and accept that you are feeling anxious.
Then ask yourself why and if this the appropriate response for this situation.
Are you subconsciously giving this race more important than it deserves? Or are you anxious because you didn’t put in the time to train that you know you would need to run a good race?
And then what do you decide?
If you apply the stoic mindset, you choose to race and do your best.
3. Visualize Setbacks To Be Prepared On Race Day
“What is quite unlooked for is more crushing in its effect, and unexpectedness adds to the weight of a disaster. The fact that it was unforeseen has never failed to intensify a person’s grief. This is a reason for ensuring that nothing ever takes us by surprise. We should project our thoughts ahead of us at every turn and have in mind every possible eventuality instead of only the usual course of events.” – Seneca
The stoics had a practice they called “premedetatio malorum” – premeditation of evils—negative visualization.
For your dream race, that means you visualize in advance everything that could go wrong.
But why would you want to do this? Won’t that spike your pre-race anxieties to unthinkable heights?
Quite the opposite.
By visualizing possible setbacks and obstacles, you prepare yourself to stay calm. In addition, you are preparing yourself to respond in the best way possible should these negative scenarios present themselves.
If the race runs smoothly, all is well. But when things go south during the event, it is better to be prepared than unprepared.
And not only will you be able to deal with the unfortunate situation calmly and rationally, but you have practiced your response in advance.
That means you can also pre-assess risks during your visualizations and decide before the race what will happen if you encounter a specific problem.
For example, let’s say you are 80 miles into your first 100-mile race, and you start to throw up. Will you continue? Will you decide to walk until your tummy calms down? Will you try to eat something? If so, what?
Under what conditions will you choose to drop out of the race?
By answering these and other questions before the race start, you will have an easier time deciding on the spot what to do should issues arise.
As a result, your pre-race anxieties will diminish because you know you practiced problem-solving in your head – and you can use this skill on race day.
4. View Obstacles As An Opportunity
“Every obstacle in life presents us with an opportunity to turn inward and to invoke our own submerged inner resources. The trials we endure can and should introduce us to our strengths.” – Epictetus
Stoicism teaches you not only to accept difficulties but to embrace them.
You learn to see the opportunity in every seemingly adverse event.
Think about the many obstacles you will encounter on your way towards finishing your dream race.
How do you react when an injury threatens to derail your preparation? Or when the battery of your headlamp dies in the middle of your overnight training run? Or when you take a wrong turn during the event?
Do you fret, worry and bemoan your “bad luck”?
Do you indulge in self-pity?
If you want to grow as an athlete, you need to adopt the mindset of “adversity makes me better.” Doing that, you will not be devastated when an obstacle occurs.
Instead, you accept, embrace it and ask yourself: “How can I use this circumstance to improve myself”?
That means you welcome all of these seemingly negative situations.
You know they are a chance for you to analyze, adapt and improve—your running technique, your training plan, your race-day preparation, and gear.
And not only will you accept obstacles as they occur, but you will also seek them out proactively.
For example, you challenge yourself in your training and do the hard workouts because you know they will make you stronger. You finish those hill sprints. You go for those long runs.
You seek out training environments that challenge you.
5. Go After Your Running Dreams Now – Stop Procrastinating
“Now is the time to get serious about living your ideals. How long can you afford to put off who you really want to be? Your nobler self cannot wait any longer. Put your principles into practice, now. Stop the excuses and the procrastination. This is your life! Decide to be extraordinary and do what you need to do. Now.” – Epictetus
How much time will you waste contemplating your goals without fully committing to them?
How often do you tell yourself, “now is not the right time to pursue this goal” or “when I have more time then I will…”?
Remember that all your time on this earth is finite, and all you ever have is now.
So start taking action now – even if that action is not “perfect.”
You don’t have time to drive to the trails? Head out and run anyways. If that means running through an urban landscape – then so be it.
If you don’t have the time for extended stretching sessions, take 10-minute breaks while working and do some stretching and mobility exercises.
You want to finish your first ultra-marathon but don’t know where to start? Hire an ultra-running coach and invest the time and money instead of talking yourself out of it and finding all possible excuses as to why you don’t have the time to train for it or the money to pay for coaching.
As the saying goes: If it’s important to you, you will find a way. If it’s not important to you, you’ll find excuses.
And while you’re out on that training run or struggling through these boring strength training sessions, make a conscious effort to stay grounded in the present. Focus on the task at hand and executing it to the best of your abilities.
Trust the process.
Apply this mindset when racing, too, and running 50, 100, or even 200 miles will become more manageable. Don’t focus on the long road ahead of you. It will only make you anxious. Instead, take it one step at a time – literally.
I specialize in coaching newbie ultrarunners and have both the credentials will help you finish your ultra with a smile on your face.