This Mental Health Awareness Month, we asked Unived Athlete Nupur Singh to share her insights on Ultramarathoning. She recently set the Indian National Record for 100K clocking 8.42.48 hrs in a stadium run in Bengaluru. Eager to know how she trains beyond the track and trails for long distances, here’s a little excerpt from our conversation:
“I am an Architect by education and after working for 6 years in Delhi, I moved to the mountains to pursue my love for the outdoors in 2016. I started running purely for fitness and the community around it, but then it became a means to explore the mountains. I am an outdoorsy person, nature has always fascinated me, be it the landscape, the weather or the life all around, I find it all truly magical. Venturing into the forest on solo runs, overcoming the fear of being alone to feeling part of the surroundings. The solitude and yet the connection with the life around is breathtaking. This realization instilled a deep love for the sport in me. It was in 2019 when I shifted my focus to take up running competitively and train myself as an athlete. I am a trail runner at heart, but marathons and speed fascinate me, it makes me want to explore my strengths.
There is more to ultrarunning than just training your muscles and improving your stamina. It is also a mental sport; we have to think our way through the challenges. The conditions, the course, and our body will conspire against us. We have to find our way through it all. And to be successful, we need to train our minds just as much as we train our bodies,” shared Nupur.
How do you overcome your personal mental struggles while training/racing?
The day-to-day rigors of mountain life have instilled in me a strong outdoorsy mindset and that helps me in long races. I live a very minimalistic life, not to the extreme but just changing my attitude. It keeps me focused on things that matter. I believe that some discomfort is good as it builds resilience, it helps me grow. I do a lot of solo runs, I enjoy them but it also helps me to regulate my internal dialogue and find a balance between pain and discomfort.
Do you practice any techniques on and off-field to be mindful, stay calm, and achieve optimal mental well-being?
I have recently developed an interest in breath works, meditation and mindfulness that helps me deal with complex emotions, stay grounded and be in gratitude for the life that I have been living.
What is your approach to the mental training for utramarathons, full marathons and trail running?
Everyone faces tough moments in ultramarathons, and we have to be prepared to deal with those we can predict and be ready to think our way through the ones we can’t. After reading through many books on ultrarunning and listening to various podcasts, I have taken away some techniques like the following:
- Knowing the why? Why I am doing this race? What do I hope to get out of it? Before signing up for any big race I try to answer these key questions, as it helps me stay focused and not get carried away with overwhelming emotions.
- Becoming aware of my thoughts. What I actually say to myself, what kind of narratives, what stories I tell myself when I start to get fatigued. It often goes as ‘this is hard’ ‘I might not be able to finish’ ‘the fear of failure’. By reviewing these thoughts and knowing how my body responded, I can then train myself to self-talk out from these tough mental narratives. Motivational self-talk, I find is a very useful technique.
- I try to break the bigger goal into smaller chunks. Like, in a trail race I break the distance into uphills, downhills and flat segments and plan the strategy for individual segments. It reduces the mental stress.
- Understanding the cues my body gives and learn to keep relaxed, observe my running form and breathing, shoulders and hands relaxed. To constantly to keep a check on them all.
Our thoughts create a ‘perception of effort’ which often is separate from the actual effort. By using a strategy that makes our run feel easier, we are likely to run a little bit better, and we are also likely to enjoy it more. Our mind is a powerful tool to improve our running performance.
How do you strategize stadium runs differently from road races or trails?
I was never a fan of running long distances in a stadium, the concept always bewildered me. Why torture yourself by running in that vicious circle, Ultrarunning is hard as it is. Running in 400m loops over and over again adds another level of mental challenge. For a stadium run, I try to break the entire distance into hourly progressions and strategize my entire race based on that. With so many people – men and women, running on the same track, it’s easier to get carried away and start chasing others instead of sticking to our own strategy. I have to constantly keep a mental check to keep running my own race and stick to the plan. As difficult as it is, there are a few good parts to it too. All the runners, competitors, well-wishers, friends and crew are also in that circle of 400m. Everyone is suffering and enduring through those same emotions and stressors. As runners, we have the tendency to lift and cheer each other up and the stadium is full of crowd at all times.
What is your pre-race ritual?
I take it very easy a week prior to the race, focussing more on my nutrition and recovery. I avoid caffeine and alcohol altogether (not always successful with my love for coffee). A day before the race, I drink a lot of water and load up on carbs. I familiarise myself with the route, revise my nutrition and hydration strategy for the race and keep everything organised for the next day. To take off my mind from the race jitters, I watch some movie or videos. I try to remind myself to keep it simple and enjoy the experience. Winning or losing is separate but being out there, and experiencing it is what makes it all worthwhile.
What role does fuelling play in your training/racing?
One thing that I have realized is our limiting factor isn’t only our physical or mental capacity but also our nutrition and hydration strategies, decision-making capabilities, gear selection, and so on. By fuelling right we make sure that our body gets the necessary energy to run efficiently.
Any memorable experience you want to share with us…
I am doing what I love, and I am grateful. Life can take us on a lot of unplanned adventures, but runs and races are adventures that we plan for, look forward to and are lucky enough to be able to participate in. In March 2022, one of the adventures I signed up for was Eco Trail AlUla, an 80km long ultra-trail race in the vast desert of Saudi Arabia. When I got the invitation for the race, I was at the worst of my fitness. I took it as sign and knew it to be my comeback race. Despite of all the challenges, I managed to secure a 2nd position in the women’s category and placed in the overall top 10.
Photo by ‘Adventure III‘