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May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, September 2000 Page: 1 | 2 | 3

Completing the six-month motivational road to a faster, stronger, just plain better you

By Paul Keegan

Philippe Weisbecker

THE MASTER OF mental toughness breaks into a booming, gruff-coach laugh. "This is you!" he says. "No smoke and mirrors. This is it, baby."

I'm sitting at a small table with sports psychologist Jim Loehr. We're in the tiny conference room where Loehr has dug into the psyches of elite athletes ranging from speed skater Dan Jansen to tennis great Andre Agassi. Now it's my turn—again. After spending six months on Loehr's program I'm back in Orlando at his training facility, LGE Performance Systems, to compare my current condition, gleaned from a disarming character evaluation and a rigorous fitness test, with the way I stood at the beginning of the program six months ago (see "No More Mind Games," March, or www.outsidemag.com/mindgames). Loehr's plan aimed to make me a faster runner, a more durable cyclist, a quicker basketball player—and, not incidentally, a happier, more productive person. I definitely feel like I'm better off since I started, but Loehr, an empiricist at heart, wants to see the numbers.

As meditation music plays in the background, he studies a sheaf of surveys filled out by ten of my friends and colleagues, evaluations of my personal strengths and weaknesses in 75 categories. "These are definitely better scores," Loehr says brightly. I beam like a fourth-grader with a good report card. Then he spots trouble. After half a year of buckling down, my three most problematic character traits are, well, still my three most problematic character traits.

As he reads aloud two of my poorest-scoring categories—Constantly Seeking Praise, and Thinks "Me"—I feel my anxiety level rising. Have I failed the program, I wonder, or has the program failed me?

When I signed up with Loehr, I wasn't out to change everything about myself—just enough to get in better shape, really. But during the first month I took on so many of Loehr's suggested lifestyle changes—getting up at the same time every morning, eating five small meals a day, doing punishing workouts—that I ended up scuttling my own efforts. Most of the time, I was wiped out. I soon learned that I wasn't allowing myself time to slack off. Oddly enough, in Loehr's world view, I lacked discipline. The program aims to build this critical skill through personalized daily rituals, with an eye to addressing the four pillars of well-being: physical, mental, emotional, and recovery.

While I'd been attacking the first three of these with zeal—creating new schedules, eating according to plan, reciting pre-performance mantras, running from the office to the gym to the health-food store—I had neglected the last, recovery. But with a little guidance from David Striegel, the coach Loehr had assigned to me after my initial visit to LGE, I began using a timer at my desk to remind me to take breaks every two hours, putting adequate sleep above all else, and leaving one day of every weekend unscheduled.

Tweaking my routine made the program more manageable. To be honest, though, I wasn't thinking much about it until one day at the end of the second month, when I was visiting family in Knoxville, Maryland. I went for a jog along a rural stretch of the Potomac, directly across from Harpers Ferry. Bright orange sunlight smeared an overcast afternoon sky as I settled into a medium jog, figuring this would be a light run, maybe a half-hour; I'd get back to serious workouts when I returned home.

But after about ten minutes, something astonishing happened. My body suddenly started sprinting, as if some internal switch had been flipped. My legs leaped out in front of me, my fists began punching through the air, my heart raced. I found myself a startled outside observer of my own body, which seemed to have its own notion of how fast it could go. It was a strange, exhilarating feeling—like driving a car and having the accelerator stuck to the floor. All I could do was steer and enjoy the ride. After a few minutes my body slowed back down to a jog. I was elated. For a few rapturous moments, I had finally reached the quasi-mystical "Ideal Performance State" that Loehr had promised when I signed on back in late October.

That was when the program truly began for me. At last I was seeing tangible benefits from the high-intensity workouts Loehr had me doing. And it convinced me of the truth behind one of Loehr's key principles: Stress, broadly defined as the expenditure of energy, is a crucial stimulus for growth, so long as it's immediately followed by recovery, the period when growth actually occurs. Whether you're talking about a quad-torching run up a steep trail or a blowout game of hoops with a friend, the fundamental approach remains the same: Oscillate constantly between stress and recovery, and guide the process by observing consistent behavioral rituals. Gradually, even though you're fluctuating between progress and what may feel like stagnation, this oscillation will boost you to a higher plane of performance.

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