Hit Your Peak

Pro-proved mental strategies to help you cultivate a winner's mind-set.

Feb 15, 2011
Outside Magazine
Tri Cyclist

Endurance trick: Set up intermediate finish lines—the next light post, an athlete ahead of you—then pick the next one.    Photo: Photo by Andy Anderson

If there's one mental strategy that separates pros from the pack, it's visualization. When you rehearse a move or performance clearly in your mind, the brain becomes more familiar with it, and it can control movements more easily in reality. "It's something that all the great athletes do," says Michael Sachs, a sport-psychology professor at Temple University. "There is certainly clear evidence in the scientific literature that it works."

DO IT: In the weeks and days before an event, spend 15 to 30 minutes daily visualizing how your race will unfold, from start to finish. Make the vision as vivid as possible, from the taste of the gels to how you'll feel as you cross the finish. Stressed out by competition? Imagine yourself calm and composed on the starting line. "There are countless studies showing visualizing a more relaxed state desensitizes you to the stress," says the University of Pennsylvania's Powers, "putting you at a more ideal level of stress during competition."

Pro athletes talk to themselves during hard workouts and competitions—repeating a few simple words to keep them in the right frame of mind. They may look crazy, but the habit short-circuits any defeatist thinking and keeps you in control of what your brain is telling your body. "I have a power word for when I'm racing," says Goucher. "When I run a marathon, it's 'courage'. When you're hurting in the race, you think of that word and it stands for all the work you did, and it helps you remember you're ready."

DO IT: Pick a few words to say to yourself when you're deep in the pain cave—first in training, then in races. Use positive language ("I can do it") and say it out loud if you can. Never mind the puzzled looks.

Think like a winner. Some athletes invent pretexts for why they can't succeed even before they hit the starting line. "It's a self-protective mechanism," explains Williamson. "If you go to a race focusing on your lack of training, you've created a justification in case you don't do well."

DO IT: The moment you start telling your buddy how little you've been training lately, stop yourself. Even if your conditioning isn't perfect, fixating on it will only make things worse.

When you're dead tired halfway through a race, the finish line may seem unreachable. Don't let it overwhelm you. "The mind can make a 30-yard straightaway in 100-degree heat look like the horizon of the Pacific Ocean," says ultrarunner Hal Koerner, two-time winner of the Western States 100. "I shift my gaze to three feet. Or I choose a landmark to push to and then, once I've reached it, relax the tempo and pick the next challenge."

DO IT: Set up intermediate finish lines—the next light post, an athlete ahead of you, the crest of the hill—and once you're there, pick the next one. Distract your brain from the pain any way you can. "I like to listen to audiobooks when it gets tough," Karnazes says. "You might be dying, but if you put on a good book, hours can go by and you'll still find yourself captivated. It takes your mind off your body."