This is an excerpt from Mental Training for Ultrarunning by Addie J. Bracy.
When I think back to when I first started running ultramarathons compared to now, I see that I’ve drastically reduced the amount of gear I carry with me. I’ve also revised race logistics to be even more efficient and effective. The strategy behind these changes was partly about increasing efficiency both on the course and through aid stations but also about reducing the number of decisions I needed to make throughout a race. Every time you make a decision, it requires your brain to do a mental rehearsal and project the possible scenarios and outcomes of each option. Even when it’s operating at a subconscious level, it’s taking up valuable mental resources. When you’re planning for an effort likely to be one of the hardest of your life, ask yourself which decisions are worth the energy. You’ll quickly find that having a smorgasbord of fueling options to choose from every time you stop at a crew station may not be crucial, and in fact, deciding what food to grab may even feel like it takes more mental energy than it should. It’s much better to practice with different options, choose a few that you know work well for you based on what you need to take in, and stick with those few things.
This isn’t a new concept, and it’s not isolated to sports arenas. If you search the Internet for photos of Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, you’ll notice that in almost every picture they are wearing a version of the same outfit. As CEOs of billion dollar companies (or in Apple’s case, trillion), they have so many important decisions to make during the day that the last thing they want to spend mental energy on is what to wear. Even Barack Obama told Vanity Fair magazine, “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make” (Lewis 2012). He went on to explain that making too many decisions impairs his ability to make decisions later in the day.
This is a concept that psychologists refer to as decision fatigue. An experiment performed at the University of Kent (Baer 2013) showed that strenuous or continuous thinking leaves your body physically exhausted. The study separated the subjects into two groups, each assigned a 90-minute task. One group was told to play a taxing video game while the other sat back and watched a documentary about either sports cars or trains. Afterward, each subject got on an exercise bike, set their resistance level, and pedaled as long as they could. Almost every time, the documentary watchers outperformed the gamers.
Deciding between multiple options uses the same resources as willpower. That means that the more decisions you have to make early in a race, the less fuel and motivation you will have to keep pushing through discomfort later. Think about that implication in the context of running an ultra, an endeavor that provides a lot of time to mistakenly give yourself too many decisions to make—both in the race and even in the days and night before. If you allow yourself to get into this situation, you may find that in the later stages of the race you feel even more exhausted and lack the mental reserves or willpower to keep going.
Routines also have utility in helping control attention and activation levels. When you create your preperformance or performance routines, include the mental skills you have learned. It is a built-in way to direct your focus and attention where you want it to be. For example, during your prerace routine, a body scan might be beneficial. The exercise is a way to direct your attention to broad, internal awareness of how you’re feeling without focusing or fixating on one specific thing. It also may pull your attention away from things going on around you, like other competitors, that may invoke feelings of anxiety.
Thinking back to the chapter on activation control, you’ll recall that attention and levels of activation are intimately related. Your body responds physiologically to whatever you focus on. As you create your routines, keep that in mind as well. For example, during your routine the night before the race, laying out your uniform and preparing all your gear can sometimes initiate a wave of nerves. The end of that routine is the perfect time for slow breathing or progressive muscle relaxation.
As you consider your preperformance routines, I want to point out the difference between a routine and a superstition. Routines have a tangible impact on performance. They are designed to direct your attention and control your activation levels to put you in an optimal performance state. Routines should also include only factors that you have control over. Superstitions, on the other hand, don’t have any real bearing on your performance. That doesn’t mean you should never have superstitions. I’m just suggesting that you be aware of what parts of a routine actually have an impact on performance. Additionally, if you do have a superstition, make sure it’s something that you can control (like doing a certain warm-up) versus something that might be harder to control (like eating the exact same meal the night before). If you think you can’t race well without wearing your lucky socks, it doesn’t matter that they don’t actually make you run faster because you believe that they do. When you’re creating your routines, don’t give power to anything that doesn’t deserve to have power.
As you’re preparing for a race, break it down and simplify the experience. Create routines and omit as much unnecessary cognitive engagement as possible. Routines allow you to get things done without having to think too much or make too many decisions. They are also an effective way to build in your mental skills. Routines are a way to logistically prepare for the race but also to get into the optimal attentional and activation states.