Photo by Ty Milford
In the early morning hours, when many of us are entering another REM sleep cycle, Jody-Lynn Reicher is lacing up her running shoes. By the time we're grabbing our first cup of coffee, she's made it home to get her 5-year-old off to ballet class.
Having completed more than 40 marathons, the 45-year-old New Jersey businesswoman and mom attributes her focus and discipline to more than her inner tenacity and former training as a Marine. She works on her mental game as much as her physical training, which she believes enables her to achieve what others can only imagine.
The Psychology of Exercise
Six years ago, Reicher hired Dan Schaefer, Ph.D., a performance specialist and president of Peak Performance Strategies, to help her get over a few training obstacles. Schaefer, who regularly works with professional athletes, uses mental exercises to help his clients gain a competitive edge. "It all starts in the mind," he says.
"He taught me that (while exercising) the brain can only hold three thoughts at the same time," Reicher says. "When I run, I think of the three most important things I need to focus on. When I work on my speed, for example, I may focus on how fast my feet are coming around, how fast my arms are moving and keeping my head still. When I practice this, I run faster."
Reicher says shifting her focus away from the difficulty of the overall effort makes the run seem easier. This technique, referred to as dissociation, has its roots in a legendary story about Tibetan monks who ran 300 miles in 30 hours by fixating on a distant object.
Although physical limitations exist for every individual, researchers debate where those limits are because the mind often gives up before the body. As a result, more athletes are turning to sports psychologists to learn how to overcome the mental roadblocks hindering their progress. Today's top athletes use a combination of self-hypnosis, visualization and affirmations to improve training and win events.
Accentuate the Positive
Since Dr. Norman Vincent Peale published his iconic book, The Power of Positive Thinking, in the early 1950s, many have jumped on the positive-thinking bandwagon as a way to accomplish life goals and improve health. Recent studies are now adding data to back up the benefits of the feel-good movement for athletes.
While it's not always easy to do, maintaining a positive mindset does help your performance. According to a 2007 study in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, negative self-talk--"I'm no good at cycling, I should just give up"--only sabotages your game. A recent Harvard study showed that maids who were told their work met the Surgeon General's recommendations for an active lifestyle experienced decreases in blood pressure and body fat a month later without changing their behaviors, something the control group, who was not given the information, did not experience.
And not all self-criticism is bad. Task-specific statements, such as telling yourself to "relax your shoulders" when you run, will help you focus and improve, reports Tom Holland, author of "Self-Talk and the Endurance Athlete," published in the American Medical Athletic Association Journal.
To cut out the negativity, Schaefer suggests, change the conversation. "People trash-talk themselves more than they know, and the worst part is, you tend to listen to what you say because it's in your own voice," he cautions.
Professor emeritus of psychology Michael Connor, Ph.D., endorses the well-known process of visualization and recommends starting a regular routine two to three weeks prior to a race. Visualization forms a detailed, mental representation of your performance goals.
"Break the race down into stages," Connor says. "Where do you want to be at three miles? Six miles? Visualize each stage, including crossing the finish line. Get yourself in the frame of mind you want to be in when you get there."
Avoid thinking about what you fear might happen. Instead, focus on what you want to happen. Most of all, Connor says, "Remember to have fun. Find the joy in what you do."
In the Zone
Adrianne Ahern, Ph.D., performance psychologist and author of the book
Snap Out of it Now! studies human athletic potential. She says three things must be in place to get into the coveted "zone," the mental state in which you feel energized and fully immersed in what you are doing.
- Eliminate any negative thoughts. To do this, some athletes focus on a word or song that takes their minds off thoughts of pain or exhaustion. Others recite lists of things they are thankful for. Find what works best for you.
- Practice the steps of race day. Ensure you can perform your routine without thinking about it--this allows your subconscious to take over during the real event.
- Find your optimal energy level. Do you function better when you're calm or full of nervous energy? The state in which you practice best is the state you'll perform at your best.