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Mind Games: Boost Your Mental Strategy!

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Want to run faster and farther without breaking a sweat? Flex the most powerful part of your body— your brain. Sports psychologist JoAnn Dahlkoetter, Ph. D., shares her best performance-enhancing tricks.

We’ve all heard the saying, “Running is 90 percent mental, 10 percent physical.” Do you agree with that breakdown?

Dr. JoAnn Dahlkoetter: Definitely. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be in this profession! Unfortunately, I think most runners focus on the opposite ratio. They put 90 percent of their time and effort into the physical training and often neglect the mental aspect. Developing your con dence, focus and ability to handle pressure is really critical to performing your best.

What makes a runner mentally strong?

JD: There are a few different traits that can make a huge difference in a runner’s success. First of all, you need to love what you do and have a desire to make your goals a reality. It also takes courage to succeed and to seek out challenges. Perhaps the most important thing is to believe in yourself. Self-confidence will give you the ability to handle adversity, to stick to your game plan even when you encounter obstacles and to push yourself to places you haven’t been before.

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What kinds of thoughts prevent women from reaching their goals?

JD: I hear it all the time: “I’m too old, I’m too slow, I’m too fat, I can’t handle this.” Negative chatter will always impair performance. Just as self-confidence can help you run faster and farther, self-doubt will make you throw in the towel. Too many women have been told, “You’ll never be an athlete. Don’t even try it.” These statements stick with them and create limiting beliefs. For women who have been running for a long time, past races that have gone badly replay in their minds and affect future performances.

What can runners can do to become more confident?

JD: Fake it until you make it! If you tell yourself you’re a confident runner, sooner or later you will become one. Visualization is also a powerful tool. Picturing yourself pushing through your limits will make you more sure of yourself. If you have a race coming up, take a few minutes each day to close your eyes and imagine yourself at the starting line feeling happy, in the middle of the race feeling strong and at the end of the race striding down the street with a spring in your step.

Running hurts! What is your best advice for fighting pain?

JD: The more you focus on pain, the worse it seems. When you find yourself hurting, the first step is to relax mentally and physically. Take a few deep abdominal breaths to let go of anxiety and relax through the pain. Say to yourself, I’m breathing in strength, I’m breathing out negative thoughts. I’m becoming more relaxed with every step. Next, remember that the only mile you can control is the one you’re currently running. Stay present and break down the run into small, manageable pieces. Instead of thinking: How am I going to finish this 10k?! Think: I have 2.9 miles left, I have 2.8 miles left, I have 2.7 miles left . . .

Your final step is to reframe. This is what doctors do by using the word “discomfort” to describe pain. Instead of thinking of pain as suffering, think of it in terms of effort level. Say to yourself: Now I know exactly how hard I’m working. This is what it feels like to run my best time. You want to connect the sensation of pain to thoughts of doing well. ■

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Sports psychologist JoAnn Dahlkoetter, Ph.D., has helped Olympic gold medalists, professional sports teams and business executives reach for their dreams. She also serves as CEO of Performing Edge Coaching and has authored several books, including Olympic Thinking and Sports Psychology Coaching for Your Performing Edge. An athlete herself, Dahlkoetter is a former winner of the San Francisco Marathon and second-place finisher at the World Championship Hawaii Ironman Triathlon. Learn more about her at peakperformanceplan.com and drjoann.com.