Monday, November 09, 2009

How to Think Like the Pros (Running)

Simon Says: - Having just completed Powerman Malaysia and suffered badly on the second run, I saw this article and it struck a chord instantly. Normally I'm very good at packing up the negative thoughts and pain and "sending them off on a little holiday". In Powerman yesterday I failed miserably at this very useful technique. I wish I'd read this article before the race to reinforce the little tricks that one can use to nail that mare of a second run.

(Courtesy of

Olympians and elite runners share their secrets to staying motivated and running strong when things get tough.

Carrie Tollefson had a secret weapon when she ran her PR in the 5,000 meters (3.1 miles) in 2004, and it had nothing to do with extra track workouts or fancy gear. The secret weapon: A permanent marker. On one hand, Tollefson, who ran the 1,500 in the 2004 Olympics, wrote the splits she hoped to attain each kilometer. On the other, she wrote "kick" to remind herself to do just that as she approached the finish.

Tollefson, who finished that race at Stanford University in 15:04, is one of many elite women runners who use tactics like visualization and cue words to boost performance. Sports psychologists say amateur runners and weekend warriors can benefit from them too.

"The mind and the body are completely connected," says sports psychologist Alison Arnold, founder of Head Games Sports and coach to many Olympic athletes. "Every thought a runner has affects her body."

Want to beat the mental demons and improve your running? Run like the pros with these tips.

Find Your Mantra

"Kick" is one of several words and phrases Tollefson repeats to herself when she wants to pick up the pace. She also likes "focused" and "get after it," the slogan for a kids' running camp she hosts in St. Paul, Minnesota. Olympian and marathoner Kara Goucher says the word "fighter" reminds her "to stay in the race, and be tenacious."

Repeating a motivational word or phrase during a tough run can squelch negative thoughts and fuel the body's performance, says sports psychology consultant and marathoner Kay Porter.

"Think, 'This is good for me. I'm getting faster. I'm building my strength and my speed,' " says Porter. "Sometimes, you can boil it down to one word: 'Strong.' 'Powerful.' 'Upright.' "

Porter suggests the following exercise to find a word or phrase that works for you:

Close your eyes, and imagine how you felt at the end of your best race or workout. Think of a word that represents that state of mind, such as proud or tough. Visualize your next race goal, and repeat that word. Then, use the word or phrase the next time you need a mid-workout boost.

Visualize Success

Porter says during her fastest marathon, she relied on a host of bizarre images to keep her going, from a hand pushing her from behind to light flowing into sore, tight muscles.

Amy Yoder Begley, a 2008 Olympian in the 10,000 meters and 2009 U.S. 15K National Champion, says when negative thoughts surface during a race, she wards them off by imagining "squishing them up and putting them in a box, then putting the box away." [Simon says: - similar to my favourite, I pack their bags drive them to the airport and send them away on a little holiday. Works for me anyway (sometimes)].

Porter says visualization techniques like those can transport runners out of a painful present and remind them of their motivation to race or undertake a hard workout in the first place.

"Runners--especially beginners--may find it helpful to start by remembering the hard workouts they've done leading up to this moment," Porter says. "It can also help to remind yourself of how happy and proud you'll be when you're done."

Before a race or workout, Porter suggests visualizing yourself during the tough parts--a killer hill on your regular running route or the last two miles of a 10K. She says it's important to visualize yourself from the inside out, as if you're actually experiencing the run.

"Imagine yourself feeling strong and powerful, knowing that you're up for the challenge," Porter says.

Katie McGregor, a former University of Michigan NCAA cross country champion, says when times get tough, she visualizes "all the people who wish they could be running right now, but can't due to injury."

Maintaining "an attitude of gratitude" can help, recommends Porter. She also suggests talking to your body as if "it's a separate person," promising it a massage or a long bath after the run. Then, she says, follow through on the promise.

"This is about sending a little thank-you to your body, and letting it know how much you love it," Porter says. "It's so important not to take it for granted that your body is healthy, and that it can run at all."

Distract Yourself

Greg Dale, director of sports psychology and leadership programs for Duke Athletics, says most runners do best developing a plan for how they will tackle a race, then distracting themselves from the race until the event is close.

Yoder Begley says she relies on music for distraction and to help her kick into high gear. She sang Bon Jovi's "It's My Life" to herself during the Olympic Trials in the 10,000 meters in 2008, where she placed third to secure herself a spot on the team.

"I needed to take things into my own hands to make that team, and it seemed pretty fitting at that moment," says Yoder Begley.

McGregor says she relies on a wide variety of musical cues to motivate her, from hip-hop tunes to her alma mater's fight song.

"I listened to a lot of Kanye West during marathon training, and his music was playing at one of the ING New York City Marathon mile markers last fall," McGregor said. "That got me going. It reminded me to keep pushing and enjoy the ride."

At the starting line, no matter how you feel, try smiling and saying, "There's no other place in the world I'd rather be than right here, right now," Dale suggests. "If you're going to race, you need to view it as your reward for the hard work you do, not something to be afraid of or worked up about," Dale says.

Shalane Flanagan, bronze medalist in the 10,000 meters in the 2008 Olympics, worked with Dale while attending the University of North Carolina, where she won national cross country titles in 2002 and 2003. She says she now views races as "an opportunity to perform."

"When something means a lot, there's a tendency for it to be scary," Flanagan says. "But if it didn't mean a lot, it wouldn't be worth it. I try to look at it in a positive light."

Focus on Your Goals

Tollefson says a constant stream of daily affirmations helps keep her focused when she's not on the track.

Computer screens throughout the house display images of upcoming races. Tollefson's husband, Charlie, an architect, even designs artwork to remind Tollefson of her goals, such as a piece of weathered wood with antique house numbers listing American records for the 1,500 and 5,000 meters.

"We have reminders of my goals all over the house," Tollefson says. "If you don't have a goal you're working toward, it's easy to just float through life without really challenging yourself."

Olympic marathoner Deena Kastor also relies on daily positivity to ensure her head is in the right place on race day. She says her favorite motivational tool is a large chalkboard visible throughout the house.

"It always has a positive message on it," Kastor says. "After the Fourth of July, our board donned the words, 'Let every day be worthy of fireworks and celebration!' "


Anonymous said...

simon, thanks for sharing ! :) will put this in my blog also if you dont mind ! :) and congrats on Powerman !!! :)

plee said...

Just my 2cents worth! At Powerman I was fading in the final run when I started chanting "Pain is inevitable..suffering is optional". It really helped at first but soon became abbreviated to "Suffering is optional...."
Next thing I know I was going "suffering,suffering, suffering.." I had a good laugh when I realised this but it helped perk me up again!


Simon said...

Thanks Julie, sure thing, the more people that read the better.

Simon said...

Hey Paul,

Excellent feedback, made me laugh out loud. I love the way your mantra turned negative yet you still turned that into a positive and managed a laugh too on the second run - great stuff

Blackopoulos said...

In sport psychology we call SELFTALK (for mantra) and IMAGERY (visualization)