There’s one thing beginner, seasoned, and pro runners have in common: We all hit roadblocks when it comes to training, and we’ve all hit a wall (or two or three) on race day. While preparation is key, there are so many factors out of our control, from weather to stomach issues to muscle cramps, that can affect even the best-laid plans. But how you get through these low moments is what can make or break your race.
We recently got the chance to chat with pro runners at the Ultra Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) single-stage mountain ultramarathon. The 106-mile course is known for being one of the toughest, traversing through the Swiss, French, and Italian Alps. Knowing that these athletes have covered more miles than most of us could even imagine running (or want to run) in our lifetimes, we realized they’ve also experienced more roadblocks and hit more walls than most runners. So who better to get advice from for times when the going gets tough?
When you don’t feel like going for a training run…
Scrap the original plan.
“I regroup and have an extra cup of coffee. Maybe today isn’t the day to do the mileage I originally planned, so I just aim to get out the door and see how I feel. And usually once I start, my mood changes and I’m glad I got out there.”
—Magda Boulet, tied for 17th place in UTMB
Start with just a walk.
“If I don’t feel like it, I’ll just put my shoes on and start walking. I eventually say to myself, ‘Well, I’m not going to walk this,’ and I pick it up to a run. At the end I’m glad I did.”
—Jim Walmsley, 5th place in UTMB
Set a goal and keep it in mind.
“For me it’s all about setting a goal. So I sign up for a race or set a goal for the future. If I have a goal, it’s easier to get out the door and train.”
—Hayden Hawks, 1st place in CCC (Courmayeur Champex Chamonix, a 63-mile race, the same weekend as UTMB)
Remind yourself how you’ll feel post run.
“I always tell myself that I never regret a run after I do it. Once you start moving you feel better. You exercised, and that’s healthy for your body and mind. It helps to strengthen your self-discipline for the future, and the more you do, the better you perform. And it also makes you feel stronger mentally.”
—Sage Canaday, UTMB finisher
When you don’t have a lot of time, but you need to get in some miles…
Even a short run counts.
“Something is better than nothing. Even if you just run for 15 to 20 minutes, you got your heart rate up and reaped the benefits. Tell yourself you’ll go a short distance, and maybe you’ll end up going longer.”
Schedule your runs into your planner.
“I always schedule out my day the night before. Whenever I have free time—whether it’s 20 minutes or an hour window—I run then. I tell myself I won’t be able to do this later and that motivates me. Plus, running is the time when I can enjoy the day and not think about all the other pressures in the world around me. It helps me to know that the run will benefit me the rest of the day.”
A half hour is more than enough.
“There is a magic 30 minutes of exercise that helps you maintain your fitness level. You’ll still get better, but slower. And that 30-minute window also has the least amount of risk for injury. So if you have the 30 minutes, get the 30 minutes in—even if it’s during lunch.”
Running can help relieve stress.
“This can be one of the biggest barriers, but it helps me knowing how happy I am after a run, and the stress is off my shoulders. I try to plan it into my schedule so I commit to it.”
When the race mileage is weighing on your mind…
Make smaller goals.
“It’s intimidating when you think about it as one big goal, but not if you break it down into smaller accomplishable goals. Then when you accomplish the little goals, you’ll think ‘look, I did this,’ and it will motivate you to keep going.”
Preparation is the key to success.
“I remind myself that all I need to do is what I did in training. I’ve done race simulations, I’ve run in the gear, I’ve run similar if not the same routes, so all the work is done beforehand. My coach told me one time that if I did the training and I prepared myself like I should, all I had to do was mix in competitive juices and then I’m unstoppable.”
Keep yourself busy.
“I try to stay busy and focus on other things like work. I try not to overthink it, but I know at some point during the race it will hit me. In that moment, I just remind myself that I’m committed and I’m going to take this journey and learn about myself.”
Worry about what you can control.
“It’s a long distance no matter if it’s your first time running it or you’ve run it many times before. So think of it in variables that you can control. Think about the gear. Think about the views you’ll get to enjoy. Break down the course by aide station. Don’t think of it all at once.”
When you hit a wall…
Know you’re not alone.
“I remind myself that everyone has ups and downs during the race. There will be a point when I want to stop, but if I have the discipline to push though the bad patches, I know it can’t get any worse and I might feel better later on in the race.”
Give the race respect and finish.
“I was running a 50-miler and hit a wall around mile 30/35 and was having really bad stomach issues. I thought about dropping out, but decided to finish. I was almost walking the last 15 miles and as a pro athlete, that’s hard. It’s really hard to know you won’t win but you’ll finish, and that’s what matters on that day. As I was walking down the finish line, so many people gave me respect and were so happy for me. It has helped me ever since then. Whatever you do, finish the race. Give the race the respect it deserves.”
Remember that it’s temporary.
“It’s inevitable to have ups and down in a long race. But generally those moments pass. Remember you won’t get to the finish line by slowing down because the finish line isn’t going anywhere. Problem-solve with what you’re doing in the moment.”
Change up your goals.
“You can always back off on pace and regroup. Most of the time that works. Resetting goals even in the middle of the race is OK in order to reach the finish line. Dropping out because it’s hard is the biggest regret.”
When you’re starting to feel dehydrated…
Drink even when you’re not thirsty.
“I do small amounts of fluid frequently. It helps me stay mentally sharp I’m alert and make better decisions. At night it can be hard to drink, but it’s still important. If you go big chunks of time without fluids and then try to drink a lot, you can’t process it.”
Take small sips.
“I sip mild temperature water—nothing too cold—and I put water on my back to try to bring my body temperature down. I’ve tried to gulp down cold water before and had stomach issues from it. I also carry mini muffins on me.”
Mix it up.
“Your taste changes a lot over the course of a race and you usually do get dehydrated. It helps to have a support crew with or to carry lots of different sweet and salty drink options. Don’t just drink plain water.”
When your stomach starts to act up…
Go when you need to go.
“Go to the bathroom if you need to and fart if you need to. Don’t be afraid to let a bowel movement happen. If you don’t, you’ll feel bottled up and you’ll have a bad run.”
Lay off the sugar.
“It’s usually a hydration problem. If you’re nauseous, you’ve probably had too much sugar too quickly. Try to eat more salty foods and starchy foods like potato chips or soup broth.”
Reset with H2O.
“GI issues can be related to multiple factors, so reassess and do a process of elimination. I usually go back to just drinking water and use that to reset. Get water in, and if you respond well to that, add on from there—sports drinks or gels.”
Don’t stop fueling.
“When you’re sick or bonking, you want to stop taking in fuel, but you won’t make it to the finish if you stop. Even if you’re forcing it down, it’s better than not taking in anything at all.”
When you start to get too much in your own head…
Adjust your gear.
“Sometimes I flip my sunglasses up and down to get a different perspective and see differently—that’s my mental trick. Or if I’m tired on the uphills, I may change how often I switch from power hiking [or walking] versus actually trying to run, because it works muscles differently. Or I’ll grip my poles a little differently. Little things to try to get refreshed.”
One foot in front of the other.
“If you’re bonked physically, the biggest thing that has always helped me is to constantly be moving forward. Even if I have to crawl or walk, just keep moving forward. Once you stop, your mind gets out of it and everything starts crashing.”
“Usually when things go wrong, you get anxious and your breathing is off, and you may not even notice. You need to slow down your heart rate. I’ve learned to do lion’s breath in yoga. You exhale a loud noise to help reset things. It’s strange to do next to people, but it’s also fun and hits restart on your breathing.”