How to Think Like the Pros

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."

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.

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