“Proper Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance”


Ed Donati draws on his experience preparing for some truly epic races and discusses mental preparation. In longer races, conquering the mind is half the battle.

Ed has relished racing since he was a nipper, a lot of his school and university career was spent playing team sports, but since then regular organised sport has been hard to come by so solo races have come to the fore. He was lucky enough to take part in a sporting competition called Last Man Standing a couple of year’s back which introduced him to the alternative side of mainstream races and hasn’t looked back.


You’ve probably heard this pithy little line before, whether it’s from a soldier or a personal trainer, or your other half. And as with all such quotes there is truth to it, without proper training you won’t do yourself justice and depending on the race, you may not even finish. So getting a training schedule together is key, maybe you pull out a spreadsheet and put in some distances and times, you add in some cross training and core work, give yourself the odd weekend off to get sauced, and calculate your likely finish time for the race. That’s what I do anyway, but life gets in the way of things, and the schedule ends up being more of a guide, but you get some training done and hit the race in reasonable shape and pull off a decent time. You could have done better, you should have done it faster, next time though you’ll get a PB. Those of you for whom this description of a race is a familiar refrain may find some of the following useful. And it is all to do with training your brain.


We all train our bodies for the race, and in doing so a partial benefit is training the brain. If you’ve done a couple of 20 milers as training before hitting a marathon, you have trained your brain to deal with the pain and the expectation of more pain, and that makes the race easier. If you have done a marathon before and then run a second, you know how hard it gets and your body is ready for the agony of the last 6 miles, and I’m not talking just about physical pain, I’m talking about the voice in your head which is encouraging you to slow down or to walk, or even to quit. The longer the race you undertake, the greater the mental effort required to silence that voice, and it can become as tiring as the physical effort itself. How many of us specifically target our brain to deal with this? Not enough. And it is key.


I have done some pretty odd races in my time, hard ones and ones you just can’t train for, I’ve done open ocean marathons in wooden canoes in Papua New Guinea, multiday mountain marathons in wales, long winter races in the snow, swum cold, deep lakes and most recently ridiculous Scottish quadrathlons. For me it has been the mental preparation that has got me through. Not that I am any sort of a psychologist, or have any great insight into mental machinations, I have just used really basic techniques that require very little effort. The effect of this training is twofold:

  1. It readies you for what you are going face
  2. It gives you more confidence in your own ability.


1. I did the Marathon Des Sables last year, 250km over 6 days in the Sahara carrying all my gear & food. I’d never tackled anything so long and gruelling. So with plenty of time in advance I cobbled together a training plan and started getting the miles in. Six months before the race I went out and ran marathon with 4,500m of ascent. Foolishly I hadn’t done more than a 10km of mountain training - it was brutal, I hobbled into the finish in pieces. The following day I couldn’t walk. It felt like I was being stabbed in the arch of my foot every time I took a step. The result? I couldn’t do any exercise for another 3 months. And even after that I could only walk.


So the sum of my training for a 250km race involved long walks three times a week for three months, and yet I finished the race in the top half of the field and enjoyed pretty much every minute of it. Why? Because I was in the right mental frame of mind. I sat in the sauna at least once a week for increasingly long periods. When you start to properly overheat you end up panicking, and in the desert there is no plunge pool to cool off in. So I built up my tolerance, minute by minute. I learnt how to calm myself down and to deal with the heat and to enjoy it and relish it. I might not have been running but I was preparing my body and mind for the task ahead regardless.


I read other people’s race reports to get an idea of what would happen. I emailed people on the internet for descriptions and tips and I met up with people who’d done something similar. My approach wasn’t rocket science, but the fewer things that there are to surprise you, the easier it is. I downloaded pictures from past races onto my phone, some photos showed endless stretches of sand, I  wasn’t daunted by the vast expanse of desert, the people in the photos were covering the ground, so would I. Other photos showed people finishing the race, these exhausted bodies with ecstatic grins plastered across them. I imagined myself in their position, how would I feel when I finished, it would be amazing.


How to you eat an elephant? Well you cut it up into little chunks first, then you eat it. So it is with every race. I rehearsed how I would deal with my blisters, I repeated kitsch phrases to myself*, I wrote myself letters to read when it got tough, to remind me of my motivations, I imagined myself plodding up a dune, ready to quit – how would I feel? Why would I want to quit? I would remind myself why I wanted to tackle the race in the first place. I rehearsed using my competitive edge to spur myself on – ‘X is just ahead of you, and they look 20 years older than you’, or you can imagine how awful you would feel if you pulled out, as they say ‘pain is temporary but quitting is forever’. Or you can use personal experience, maybe you are doing the race for charity or to help a loved one – use them as motivation, and imagine yourself hurting and in pain and pushing on for them. Either way, you have to take a moment and mentally rehearse how you will feel at points during the race, and do it every day - it only takes a minute. If it’s a triathlon, mentally go through the sequence at transition. If it’s a run, take photos of the course and imagine how you will feel at certain points. Put pictures next to your bathroom mirror to look at every time you brush your teeth, these can be you on a bike or in a wetsuit to remind you of the feeling and to remind you of the training you’ve done. Put up a photo of you grinning next to a photo of a tree on your run route, and when you pass that tree you can’t help but smile. And that smile reminds you of all the mental training you’ve done, and suddenly you feel better and stronger than you have all race.


And this all feeds into point 2. Once you are mentally comfortable with the idea of doing something, you can feed off it in the race, safe and secure in the knowledge that it is fully within your abilities. This mental preparation gives you huge reservoirs of self-confidence. Pain hurts so much less when you know you are going to continue and finish. Those of you who have done plenty of different races, whatever they may be, don’t even think twice about running 5km, it is so familiar you never consider that you won’t finish the distance, it doesn’t cross your mind. Yet for many people this distance is just as daunting as a 100 miler is for you. They have to reach the stage that you are at: a), you’ve done it so many times before, you know exactly how you will feel at every stage and b) it is so familiar you and your confidence is so overwhelming that not finishing that distance is not even an option. This is where you want to be aiming for with mental preparation. You want to be so secure in your own ability that missing whatever goal you have for the race is not even an option. Even if you’re not physically prepared, you can mentally ready yourself. I ran up a mountain in Nepal with a 25kg rock on my head a few years back. I got one week to train for it, my neck was agony and the altitude left be breathless, but I spent most of that week reminding myself of my physical and mental strengths. I knew I was going to finish, I wasn’t going to quit. And as soon as I accepted that, I wasn’t too fussed about the pain, it would come and go during the race but I was going to finish. And I did.


There is the example of a woman with short term memory loss who could run ultramarathons with ease, because she simply couldn’t remember how much pain she’d been through, so carried on at the same old pace. And at the end of every race you’ve ever done, even when you were completely spent, if I put a gun to your head and said go another mile, you could do it. There is so much spare capacity for effort in all of us, it is our minds which hold us back, not our bodies. You don’t really even need to tap into it, just the knowledge that it is there makes the race so much easier. So next time you have a race, spend a little time training your mind and it will repay the effort many times over.


*I am sure many of you are familiar with the famous motivational speech by Al Pacino in ‘Any Given Sunday’, if not check it out on youtube. You may roll your eyes when you see the wide receiver looking into the mirror telling himself that he can catch anything, but the belief in your own ability, sometimes blind belief, gives you an extra edge. Actually saying positive phrases about yourself or what you will do trains your brain to accept them as truth.


If this has struck a cord with you and you want to know more here are a couple of books that are worth reading:


Feet in the Clouds – Richard Askwith

Survival of the Fittest – Mike Stroud

Eat and Run – Scott Jurek

Iron War – Matt Fitzgerald

A life without limits – Chrissie Wellington

Ultramarathon Man – Dean Karnazes

The Hour – Michael Hutchinson 

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