Think strong words. Repeat inspiring phrase. Run even better.
From the February 2011 issue of Runner's World
Kristen Fryburg-Zaitz put in all the hard work expected of an elite distance runner. In preparation for the 2009 Chicago Marathon, she ran weekly long runs, tempo runs, and intervals, all at altitude in Boulder, Colorado. But despite arriving at the starting line in peak form, "I just didn't believe in myself," she says. Fryburg-Zaitz placed a disappointing 17th in 2:48:40, a full 11 minutes slower than she'd hoped. "I had so much doubt going into the race," she says. "I realized that I'd defeated myself mentally before I'd even started." So in April 2010, she sought the help of Stephen Walker, Ph.D., a sports psychologist in Boulder who taught her how to buoy her confidence. Walker's secret weapon? Mantras.
To achieve your running goals, powerful legs and big lungs aren't enough—you also need a strong head. Doubts and distractions can derail your attempts, but a well-chosen mantra can keep you calm and on target. "Repeating choice words whenever you need to focus helps direct your mind away from negative thoughts and toward a positive experience," says Walker.
Indeed, the Sanskrit word "mantra" literally means "instrument for thinking." As such, these short words or phrases have long been used to focus the mind in meditation, says David K. Ambuel, Ph.D., professor of philosophy at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia.
Fryburg-Zaitz used a visual aid to remember her mantras. At the 2010 U.S. 20-K Championships, she lined up wearing a multicolored wristband. Yellow signaled control for the early miles. Red meant power, for the hills. Green represented compete, to focus on remaining with the group. Pink corresponded to run strong and blue was magnet—a cue to accelerate to the finish line. The colorcoding worked: Fryburg-Zaitz's top-10 finish earned her a spot on the 2010 U.S. World Half-Marathon Championships team.
With Walker's guidance, Fryburg-Zaitz chose wisely. An effective mantra addresses what you want to feel, not the adversity you're trying to overcome, says Robert J. Bell, Ph.D., a certified consultant of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. In fact, when discomfort strikes, the worst thing you can do is embrace the pain, says Walker. "When you start thinking, Oh, this hurts, Oh, I have a side stitch, Oh, my legs are tired—those negative thoughts pile on," he says. A good mantra diverts your mind from thoughts that reinforce the pain to thoughts that help you transcend it.
So what makes a good mantra? One that's short, positive, instructive, and full of action words. Walker suggests preparing multiple mantras before a race tailored to various challenges. And don't limit yourself to "real" words. A made-up word works for Tara Anderson, a 34-year-old runner in Boulder who recites, Lighter, softer, faster, relaxer. "I repeat it with each footstrike, and if I'm having a problem, I'll repeat the relevant part until I'm in the flow," she says. Her phrase helped her set a three-minute PR in a 10-K in 2009. Here's how you, too, can wring some running magic out of a few well-chosen words.
Do As We Say
RW staffers and the words that carry them through
Starting out easy?
"Pass no one."
—BART YASSO, Chief Running Officer
"Don't listen. Don't look. Just run."
—CHRISTINE FENNESSY, Senior Editor
"Light and smooth."
—MARK REMY, Executive Editor (Online)
"Claw the ground."
—DAVID WILLEY, RW Editor-in-Chief
"Hills are my friend."
—LORI ADAMS, Assistant Editor
"Just stay calm."
—TISH HAMILTON, Executive Editor
Summoning a kick?
"The strong get stronger."
—WARREN GREENE, Brand Editor
"Turn and burn."
—NICK GALAC, Associate Photo Editor
"Run fast, go past."
—CHRIS EVANS GARTLEY, Managing Editor
"One mile at a time."
—AMBY BURFOOT, Editor at Large
"Fast or slow, it hurts just the same."
—SEAN DOWNEY, Senior Editor
"Save it. Save it."
—JENNIFER VAN ALLEN, Special Projects Editor
Mantras that help elites reach peak performance
"This is what you came for."
—SCOTT JUREK, running 165.7 miles en route to breaking the American 24-hour record in May 2010
—DEENA KASTOR, while winning the Chicago Marathon in 2005 and becoming the first American to win a major marathon since 1994
"You're tougher than the rest."
—SARAH REINERTSEN, in a half-Ironman qualifier that would earn her a spot at the Ironman World Championship, where she became the first female leg amputee to finish the event
"Think strong, be strong, finish strong."
—RENEE METIVIER BAILLIE, winning the 2010 USATF Indoor 3000 meters. She wrote the words on her hand.
"Make it or break it."
—NCAA steeplechase champion JORDAN DESILETS in 2004, while breaking the four-minute barrier in the mile during his last collegiate race at that distance
—The Bruce Lee mantra that Olympic middle-distance runner BOLOTA ASMEROM uses to feel smooth but full of force
How to put together your perfect phrase
Keep it short
Your mantra should be an affirmation, not a novel. "When you're tired, you don't want something elaborate," says Stephen Walker. "It's too hard to remember." Keep it to five seconds or less.
Think of the problem you're trying to counteract and turn it around. "If you're feeling weak, your mantra should be I am strong," says Walker.
Make it energetic
Your mantra should center on action verbs or strong adjectives, not abstract phrases, says Robert J. Bell. Look for words that convey energy, like "fast," "strong," or "power."
Use the mantra to remind yourself what you plan to do or how you want to feel as you're running, says Walker. Now is the time; go for it. Or, Run relaxed. Finish strong.
BUILD IT, BELIEVE IT, BECOME IT
Choose one word from each section below to create a motivational, get-it-done power chant.