Thru-Hike Training: Tackling the Mental Game

Over the weekend I had the beautiful opportunity to spend an evening with 150 friends and family members as we celebrated Alex and me recently getting married. Throughout the night I periodically fielded questions about my upcoming thru-hike. The most compelling and important question, I think, came from my best friend’s dad, who asked me what I’m doing to prepare mentally. What a fantastic, underrated question. Most of us embarking on this epic journey know we’re physically capable (not to say that aspect won’t be difficult nonetheless), but the true test will be of our grit with things that don’t go our way. So here’s a list of what I’ve been doing to prepare to tackle the mental mountains I’ll have to climb on the AT.

Do Things That Suck

As a longtime competitive runner, I know there is no secret to being good. You put in the work. You show up. With a little luck, things fall into place. This means you train when it’s too hot, you train when it’s too cold, you train when you’re too tired or too busy (while still listening to your body, of course). The point is, you don’t make excuses not to train. Now that I’m training for a thru-hike and not a 5k or a marathon, that training looks a little different, especially since I’m also recovering from plantar fasciitis. Now I need to make sure I’m lifting more and strengthening certain muscle groups (calves, hamstrings, back, shoulders, hips, etc.). I need to get in a stretching routine, a lifelong weakness of mine. I need to ice my heels when they’re throbbing and release the knots in my calves. Essentially, I need to do all the little things I’ve always hated taking time to do—not just for physical benefits but to train my mind to do the work regardless of how I feel. The trail isn’t going to care about my feelings.

TL;DR: Force yourself to do necessary tasks you hate doing in order to mentally prepare for doing that on the trail.

 

Do Things When You Don’t Want to do Them

Along the same lines of Doing Things That Suck, I need to do things when I don’t want to do them. I can guarantee there will be rainy mornings when getting out of my sleeping bag, making breakfast, packing up, and walking for hours will be the absolute last thing I want to do. To prepare for that, I’ve started putting myself in less than fun situations where I have little choice but to press on. For example, yesterday I walked the 1.75 miles to work, where I walked around for eight hours. By the end of my shift I had walked nearly ten miles while carrying items and making frequent trips up and down staircases. My feet were throbbing, and I felt a biting pain in my hip/glute. Not only did I have to walk home, but I knew my husband and I needed groceries, so I walked 2.5 miles to the grocery store, and then another mile to the apartment. A coworker offered to drive me home, but I denied in the name of AT training. During that long walk I limped and cringed, but I knew it had to be done, so I just did it.

TL;DR: Do things when you’re hungry or tired, because that’s about to be your life on the trail.

Journal

Being a writer, journaling is a natural coping mechanism for me. However, this mental technique has been especially helpful as I’ve struggled a bit with a lot of recent changes in my life. While searching for healthy ways to cope with my emotions, I’ve found that journaling can be a powerful exercise for improving mental health. The idea behind the journaling I do is that writing down the overwhelming negative thoughts means they can take space on the page rather than in my head. Over time I can notice trends in my negative thinking and search for the root of the problem. In order for this to be effective on the trail, though, some positive journaling must also take place. It’s crucial to recognize the good. If all your journaling is negative, you’ll believe your entire experience is negative, and the exercise becomes unhelpful.

TL;DR: Write down the negative thoughts so you can recognize them and move on, and write down the positive thoughts so you can appreciate what you’re doing.

Pep Talk

In high school, my teammates and I would always give each other verbal or written pep talks. It was a pre-race (and really anytime) tradition that we still carry on today by pumping up each other’s confidence any chance we get. This caused us to have seriously inflated levels of self-confidence as teens and young adults, for which I am immensely grateful. As I stated above, I’m not always in that positive mind-set anymore. Therefore, I occasionally engage in the cheesy but weirdly helpful practice of giving myself a pep talk. Sometimes I look in the mirror and tell myself what I need to hear (e.g., “You are tough, you are smart, you are capable”). Other times I talk to myself without a mirror, or if people are around I make a conscious effort to think positively.  It may seem simple or goofy, but it works. I imagine I’ll talk to myself a lot on the trail, so I may as well get in the habit of making it a positive experience now.

TL;DR: Talk yourself up and make that a habit.

High school teammates and pep talk extraordinaires.

Read Others’ AT Stories

While some people knock books about thru-hiking the AT for glorifying the experience too much, I have actually found that reading them as given me more to mentally prepare for mentally. Jennifer Pharr Davis’ Becoming Odyssa made me realize the physical toll I had ahead of me, the monotony of doing chores every day, and the possibility of meeting creeps on the trail. North by Scott Jurek reminded me that I may need to walk through spiderwebs in the morning. Jean Deeds chronicled the physical and mental hardships she encountered in her book There Are Mountains to Climb. Naturally, these hikers enjoyed their experience, but they weren’t immune to hardships. Their stories helped me realize this wasn’t just a Sunday stroll. After learning of possible setbacks, I pondered ways I would handle them (e.g., if the morning spiderwebs become too much, I’ll walk with my stick in front of me to give me a mental break). We can learn from others’ experiences—isn’t that the point of history class, after all?

TL;DR: Learn from other people’s experiences and prepare a mental strategy.

What Else?

This is just a short list of mental preparation strategies that seem to work for me. I’m far, far from perfect at these strategies. And they’re nothing crazy—I’m not sticking my hands in bags of ice while working out like Colin O’Brady. Admittedly, I’m not even always doing what I wrote above. But it’s a start, and every day is a chance to improve. What strategies do you use to prepare mentally for the trail? I’d love to hear about it!

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Comments 5

  • Avatar
    Shannon : Nov 13th

    Becca – I read this on a particularly mentally tough day. It was so helpful to hear it from someone else. Your ideas are super helpful and I plan to do all of the above as I prepare for my PCT 2020 thru-hike attempt. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Becca : Nov 13th

      I’m glad this could help, Shannon. It was a particularly rough day mentally for me as well–I basically wrote about some of the things I know I *need* to be doing. Best of luck in your preparations!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Gene : Nov 14th

    Becca
    Well I am 62 and I start my AT hike on 2-1-2020 I feel life has prepared me mentally for this hike. Life has not been easy and I am not easily discouraged . I have a positive attitude for me it will be the physical part. Kudos to you on you walks to work and around town. I will prepare my legs 1 month before my hike for me I simply go to a hotel or a place with many floors and climb steps up and down skipping steps on the way up as well as on the way down . Do not touch the hand rails you might want stand sideways this way you have a longer leg reach going down. To do this type of training to far before the hike is a waste of time unless you keep it up till the day you start your hike. The muscles relax very fast if not used and you will have the pain of waking them up again if you do not keep them active every few days. Congratulations on your Marriage and this new Chapter of your life. Enjoy your walk every day think positive stuff and appreciate the fact that you are doing something so many others can only dream of. Very best of luck it is all about attitude and taking care of your body. Hope to see your picture posted on here at MT Katahdin

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Jacob Myers : Nov 19th

    I certainly think building that circle of supporters around you is astronomical in making it through.
    I was wondering with so many ultra-runners also being involved in thru-hiking, how much do you think your running has factored into your hiking? I often run trails, but never any genuine long-distance stuff or weighted running.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Becca : Nov 19th

      Great point–social support is huge. As for your question–I started off as a cross country/track/road runner before getting into trail and ultra running. Hiking is also something I’ve done my whole life, so I don’t know that I’ve ever thought of running as factoring into my hiking. However, running keeps me fit and able to hike long distances without blinking an eye. So I guess I would say running helps in that I have a huge well of physical and mental strength from which to draw.

      Reply

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