A Mindful, Non-Competitive Approach to Training For & Completing a Long-Distance Trail Race
The early years of my running journey consisted entirely of road running, and with that came a number-focused mindset. I became much too consumed with my GPS watch and running metrics, and finally stopped to ask myself: Do I truly care about what these numbers represent and is it beneficial to my overall enjoyment of running?
Then 6 years ago, I discovered the world of trail running and ultramarathons. I was apprehensive about my off-road abilities, yet despite my doubt, I gave trail running a try and quickly fell in love with the sport and all the dirt-crusted adventure it entails!
Despite my switch to primarily trail running, the number-vigilance lingered. I caught myself evaluating my pace, ability to run up hills, and Ultra Signup ranks with a critical eye. Fortunately, I have found that the trail running community truly promotes a relaxed, positive, and all-inclusive atmosphere. No one is judging your speed or abilities – they are just happy you are there, they are proud of you for showing up and toeing the line, and they hope you have fun along the way! This outward acceptance drove me toward wanting to create a safe and welcoming space within myself as well.
I use the terms mindful and mindfulness throughout, so to be clear, the definition I am referring to is: a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.
I have found the following practices to be beneficial in cultivating mindfulness and joy during training & on race day. I have participated in several trail races ranging from 20k to 50k, however these suggestions can be helpful for any distance!
1. Keep it Fun & Positive!
Shortly after completing my 50K in 2019, I received the very exciting news that I was going to be a mom. Navigating my new life and identity as a first-time mom, during a pandemic, created an even greater appreciation for being able to spend time out on my favorite trails. Sure, I was running less frequently and notably slower, yet I was enjoying myself all the same (perhaps more!). As women, we are often givers. We give to our partners, to our children, to work, and to our family and friends. Trail running is a wonderful way to take time and space for yourself. As a stay at home mom, running has become a whole new level of coveted “me-time.” The reality is we all have myriad responsibilities and obligations that take precedence in our day to day life. Trail running is a wonderful way to temporarily disconnect from the daily grind and focus on the present moment. This time is for you! Listen to music, a podcast, or audiobook, wear your most comfortable running gear, stop & look at the wildflowers, pack your favorite snacks, invite a friend(s) to join, take photos, explore new places etc. Of course, there will be those days where you would much rather stay in bed or attend to other priorities. In those instances, positive self-talk can help with adherence to training, without the added anxiety, stress or guilt. For example:
Instead of: I need to run 12 miles today according to my training schedule. I am feeling so tired & lazy this morning, my kids woke up at 6am! But I need to stay on track if I’m going to have any chance at finishing my marathon in a few weeks. I’m just going to grind it out. Ugh my time is going to suck today, legs are dragging! Should I just skip and stay home? Feeling some mom-guilt coming on…
Try This: I should try to run around 12 miles today. I am tired and less motivated to get out the door, my kids woke up early this morning. Maybe I will check out that new trail that I have been eyeing and I’ll find a good podcast to listen to. I suspect I may run slower today but that’s ok, at least I am getting outside and moving my body. Allowing myself this time now will make me happier & more present with my kids later…
2. Settle In & Tune In
Completing a long-distance race can be a mentally grueling task, as are the months of training that precede it. Regardless of pace, long runs are the bread and butter of training for a race. It can be easy to slip down the rabbit hole of counting down miles and hours left, making it difficult to stay in the present moment and focused on the current task at hand. The key is to stay focused on your goals, be patient enough to endure those lengthy, middle miles and motivated enough to see the run through to the end/finish line. As you lace up your shoes, focus on mentally settling in for the journey, just as you might while clocking in for a shift at work or beginning a road trip. Acknowledge and embrace the fact you will be on the move for several hours, and then try to let the thought of timing go. Find the familiarity of your running rhythm and try to feel comfortable and happy there. If you’re recording the run, consider tucking away your GPS watch or phone so you aren’t able to constantly check pace and mileage.
Welcome and accept the highs and lows as they come, for there will be many but they will pass. To help keep the mind settled on the here and now, focus on taking care of yourself and your current needs. Regularly check-in with how you are feeling and care for any needs that arise, ie: Do I need fuel or water? Am I too hot or cold? How is my body feeling? How is my breathing and heart rate?
3. Embrace Change & Be Flexible: Ditch the All or Nothing Mindset
Training and participating in races does not need to be rigid, unyielding, and stressful in order for it to be successful. While you should have a general plan of action for training and race day, keep in mind that there are several factors which play a role in every run. Allow yourself acceptance, flexibility and grace if plan adaptations are needed. The weather, elevation, injuries, illness, state of mind and other circumstances can all influence how you are feeling and moving. A deviation from the desired outcome, such as needing to cut a workout short or taking longer than anticipated to complete a run, does not mean failure or weakness. It means that you confronted the obstacles head on and adapted to the best of your ability.
Life can be many wonderful things, but predictable is not one of them. Kindly remind yourself that it is OK to modify or skip workouts, it is OK to take a break when needed, and it is OK to create your own individual path toward training and race success. The quality of your personal experience should take priority over intensity and volume. Be open to moving and training your body through other modalities that bring you happiness as well, such as strength training, yoga, pilates, cycling, dancing, hiking/walking, gardening etc. All movement is good movement!
4. Slow is Smooth and Smooth is Fast
A phrase from the US Navy Seals, the idea here is to take your time, assess the situation, consider all options, and move with intention to create the best possible outcome. While training and racing, the goal should be to have a positive & enjoyable experience. One of the best ways to ensure this is to: stay safe, focus on staying adequately hydrated and fed, and maintain a balanced mindset during your run. Cutting corners on personal care, such as under-fueling, ignoring the new blister on your toe, or hyper-focusing on pace and then over-exerting yourself to meet expectations, will likely lead to issues and stress that could have been avoided. There is no shame in the self-care game!
Stay mindful & vigilant of the terrain and changing conditions, and remember that walking is an ally! Taking time to walk during a run does not mean you are out of shape, out of place, or inadequate. It simply means you are listening to your body and responding with care, kindness and responsibility. Pushing past your limits of comfort and into an area of physical and/or emotional pain or distress is likely going to negatively impact your experience and mindset. Eliminate the internal stress, expectations and pressure from the situation by allowing yourself to move at a pace that feels good to you. Keep moving toward the direction of your goal, and you are succeeding.
5. Adventure Mode
One of the most wonderful ways to practice mindfulness while running is to appreciate and love your body as it is, and to express gratitude for the opportunity to utilize all the beautiful outdoor space. Trail running, and races specifically, have given me the motivation and opportunity to run in some of the most scenic, beautiful places. From the coastlines of the Marin Headlands, Monterey Bay and Honolulu, to wine country vineyards, to Lake Tahoe and sections of the iconic Western States 100 route, running has been a wonderful vessel to inspire adventure, curiosity and exploration! Where will it take you?
Much like the journey into motherhood, long-distance running serves as a lens inward, to the innermost core of your strength and grit. The experience of training for and completing a long-distance trail race is one which I highly recommend. During the process you will experience a whirlwind of emotions, including doubt, despair, adrenaline, anger, courage, acceptance and euphoria. However, the extraordinary sense of accomplishment, pride, and resilience after completing a long-distance race cannot be underestimated. So here is a reminder that you can do this (yes, YOU!), and you have all the tools needed within yourself to accomplish whatever your goals may be. Happy running!