A Philly Ultramarathoner Shares Her Secrets for Building Mental Endurance

I’ve found that when it comes to working out, it’s as much a mental sport for me as it is physical. I spend just as much time negotiating with the little voice in my head—you know, that nagging voice that’s constantly screeching at you to “Just quit already!”—as I do moving my body

Raise your hand if you’re familiar with this voice. All of you? I figured as much.

I’ve given in to this voice plenty of times—at the gym and outside of it—and it never feels good. So to figure out how strengthen my mental endurance so I can be better equipped in the gym and in life in general, I reached out to someone who knows a little something about pushing through to reach your goals: Rebecca Barber, a 19-time ultramarathoner and the founder of Philly’s own Rocky 50K.

Below, the top tips she’s learned for building mental endurance after training for and running nearly 20 ultramarathons. Whatever goals you’ve set for yourself—whether you’re tackling them in the gym, at work or at home—you’re going to want to take notes.

Endurance

1. Live by the “You can’t eat a pie in one bite” rule.

Oftentimes, when it comes to achieving a lofty goal, our mental endurance is tested before we even make it out of the gate. You set a goal—like, say, deciding to train for your first marathon—and then, before you’ve even gotten a week’s worth of runs down, you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by the commitment and decide, “Eh, maybe next year instead.”

As Barber notes, the same sort of overwhelm can come on at the start of a big race.

“It’s really easy to see the whole race as daunting when you consider the total distance,” she says. How she deals: “I chunk out the race mentally,”—like you would slice a pie—“then focus on tackling those sections and those sections only.”

The same method can be applied to any mentally overwhelming commitment, like training for a marathon or completing a big work project: Split your training or tasks up into phases so that you have shorter-term, less anxiety-inducing goals in place and can focus solely on completing those before moving on to the next phase.

2. Remember: No up or down is permanent.

We’ve all had downs in life, from the big (an unexpected breakup) to the small (a crappy gym day, where you just don’t feel as strong as you did the day before). “Ultras are just like rollercoasters,” Barber says. “Lots of ups and downs,” both physical and mental, throughout a race.

So, how do you keep on running when a low hits a couple dozen miles in?

“I learned early on that when there’s a low, I just have to keep pushing until a high comes,” she says. “During my last 100-miler, I randomly felt tired and really wiped at mile 35. With 65 miles to go, I was panicked at first. But I reminded myself to keep pushing through it. Just a few miles later, I felt 10 times better, and it’s one of my best race performances.”

So the next time you hit a low, whether it’s in training or outside of the gym, remind yourself: It’s only temporary. If you push through, there will be another high.

3. Stop looking around you and just run your own race.

“I am a very competitive person and it’s easy to get caught up in how other people are training and/or racing,” Barber says.

In the age of Instagram, when we’re clued in to how every person does every single thing (I’ve come across unsolicited bikini grooming tips on Instagram, so really: everything), I don’t think one could utter a more relatable sentiment.

The key to drowning out the noise of what others are doing and staying focused on what you need to do? Remind yourself: There’s nothing wrong with doing things your way.

As Barber says, “Instead of comparing myself to others, I work to remind myself that I’m very thoughtful and deliberate with my training and I go into every race with a plan—even if it’s just to finish and have fun! What works for me won’t work for everyone, so I try to focus on what I’m doing. It’s a nice reminder for the rest of life to stop comparing yourself to others.”

4. Know that future you will thank you for the work you’re putting in now.

Calling all my fellow procrastinators! This one’s for us. As Barber notes, sometimes that little voice in our head tells us to shirk off the responsibilities that will ultimately make life easier (looking at you, training run). And sometimes, that’s healthy! Self-care is real, y’all.

That said, if you find yourself doing this all the time—which inevitably means you aren’t getting very far when it comes to reaching the goals you’ve set for yourself—then take a note from Barber’s ultra-training playbook and remind yourself: You have a goal to reach and future you is going to be so grateful you put the work in now.

5. Don’t lose sight of why you started.

“Part of why I run ultras,” Barber points out, “is because I’m always challenging what is possible and I’m testing my limits.”

So when training gets hard to manage or she’s hit with a low during a race, she gets her head back in the game and keeps moving forward by reminding herself why she started in the first place: “The point of this is to challenge myself and see what I’m truly made of.”

And we all know what they say: “Nothing worth having comes easy.”


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