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Girl on the Run: Mind Games

Want to run faster and farther without breaking a sweat? Flex the most powerful part of your body — your brain. I reached out to Dr. JoAnn Dahlkoetter, a sports psychologist who helps Olympians win gold, to bring you her best performance secrets.
Q: 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 would be in this profession! Unfortunately, I think most runners focus on the opposite ratio. They put 90 percent of their time and effort on the physical training and often neglect the mental aspect. Developing your confidence, focus and ability to handle pressure is really critical to performing your best.
Q: What makes a runner mentally strong?
JA: 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 quality is belief 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 go to places you haven’t been before.
Q: 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.
Q: 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 a more confident runner. 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.
Q: 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 pain to thoughts of doing well.
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.

Five minutes to a more confident you . . .

Try this exercise from Dr. JoAnn Dahlkoetter to shake off thoughts that are dragging you down.
Step #1: Take a piece of paper and write a line down the center.
Step #2: Think of all the negative thoughts you have about yourself or your running — I’m too slow to run that race, I’m not strong enough to try that workout — and write them down in the left-hand side of the page.
Step #3: Look at the first negative sentence and ask yourself, “How can I coach myself through that?” On the right-hand side, write down a positive way to think about that fear. If you’re afraid you’re too slow, write, “There are runners of all abilities and I get faster every day.”
Step #4: Continue pairing every negative sentence with a positive one until you’ve finished the list. You’ll immediately feel better. Save this paper to look at whenever doubts creep in.

Girl on the Run provides real-life training tips brought to you by Jessie Sebor, an accomplished endurance athlete who practices what she preaches. Sebor uses her column to provide tips, advice and guidance for runners—no matter their experience or pace. She shares more information and training plans through her magazine WomensRunning.com and on Twitter as @JessieSebor.