Colting: How to mentally train for an ultra race

During my years as an endurance athlete I’ve participated in many of the world’s hardest and longest triathlon and swimrun races. I’ve completed a Swedish Classic in one sweep and swum 640 km from Stockholm to Gothenburg. I’ve learnt that a well-trained body only can reach its full potential when the head is equally trained.

To ski for 220 km is an insanely though challenge. Not only for your body but also for the mind. And while most people understand that a lot of physical exercise and skiing are needed to eventually stand well prepared at the start, many miss how important it is to do the same training for head and soul.

Below you can find my best mental training tips that have helped me when I’ve taken on the 220 km in the 2017 edition of Red Bull Nordenskiöldsloppet. If you need an extra push feel free to watch my motivational video below (several times if needed).

 

#1 Milestones training

You don’t ski a 220 km race “at once”. You ski 10k at a time, one energy station at a time, one kilometer at a time. Actually, you ski one diagonal stride (or double poling stroke) at a time. 220 km of skiing might be scary but one stride followed by another considerably more disarmed. You have to be clear about the insight that even a 1000 miles hike is done step by step.

Those two times that I’ve won the Ultraman World Champs I’ve exactly used this strategy during the 84 km of running on the last day. It’s 84 km of sizzling hot running over burning lava fields. Along the way, there are distance signs for every mile and my only goal was to run the next mile. Not 84 kilometers. Only to the following sign. And as soon as I had stepped past another mile sign it was “less than a mile”. And how hard can that really be?

 

#2 The inner dialogue

When we’re talking to ourselves we pick our own words. And this opens up for “power words” instead of “suffering words”. We can pick words that make us feel like heroes and make us strong instead of words which make us to martyrs and weak.

The Japanese author and ultra runner Haruki Murakami once wrote in one of his books that “pain is inevitable but suffering is optional”. This means that it’s always up to us to choose our reaction on any given situation. When something is tough we can instead think that it’s developing. When you feel that you’re working hard during the race you can think of how effective and powerful the body works instead of thinking of fatigue and pain.

When I swam between Stockholm and Gothenburg, the water many times was freezing. But instead of concentrating on the negative aspects with the cold, I thought how it made me more alert and focused. And how I just got warmer and warmer the faster I swam. To freeze is mostly a feeling and the control of this feeling sits in my own head.

 

#3 Visualization and self-image

We have a library of ourselves filled with pictures, movies or impressions that we can relate to in any given situation. Ugly, bad, blurry and faint pictures and movies but also strong, handsome, powerful and positive ones. The goal during training is to memorize the best pictures and movies. That means, the moments and occasions the weather is nice and one feels in harmony with the body as it responds in the right way. Those impressions need to be imprinted through sight, sound, smell and emotions. You then bring back these pictures and movies when you need them the most. When you’re the most tired, you need to be able to get back these pictures and memories of yourself when training went best. From the perfect day when both body and soul were on top!

When I did my best time for the marathon during an Ironman, I ran in 2.44 and felt unstoppable. That wasn’t just because I was in great shape but because I had my best trainings – when I had run on really light and fast legs – imprinted on my mind. I actually still can recall exactly those training runs from my inner library, even though they took place ten to twelve years ago.

 

#4 Process thinking

You should focus on the process itself rather than time, rank or comparison with others. It’s training in self-esteem to dare to believe and understand that “my best will be good enough all the way to the finish line”. The insight is that only you can influence yourself and nothing else. How the weather or the track are like, how your opponents perform, that’s out of your control. Influence what you can and stop worrying about external conditions. Whatever is going to happen, you’ll solve it at your own pace.

During my best races I actually hardly cared about what my competitors did. Instead I focused on myself getting from point A to B as fast as possible.

 

#5 Training outside the comfort zone

To get tired can be quite annoying. But it’s no big deal. What’s actually the worst that can happen? You may break down a bit but then come back again. It mostly sits in your head and most of all is a question of attitude. To endure inconveniences makes you strong and tough. For example to bath in cold water, train in bad weather or get up early to work out. It’s important to regularly leave the comfort zone during training and for every time you do it you become slightly tougher.

Check out Rocky 3 when Rocky goes his final fight against his nightmare opponent Clubber Lang. In the beginning of the movie, Lang bet the shit out of Rocky but now Rocky meets him again with the insight that ”this ain´t so bad, you ain´t so bad”!

So remember how bad it might be, it’s not that bad!