Six Steps To Developing a Psychology of Success

Coach Alan Culpepper shares mental tips for success.

Photo: Scott Draper

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This article was excerpted with permission from Alan Culpepper’s new book, “Run Like a Champion: An Olympian’s Approach For Every Runner” (VeloPress, 2015). Although this article was written specifically for runners, its advice is relevant to all triathletes.

1) Recognize Your Incentive

To reach your full potential as a runner and achieve your short- and long-term goals, it’s important to honestly explore and embrace your primary incentive for running. It is that singular motivating factor that you will fall back on when the training gets hard, when you naturally start to lose some of that initial excitement and motivation, when you get into a training rut or when the weather is bad and you don’t feel like lacing up your shoes. Why do you want to go through all that is necessary to reach your goals? Is it out of joy? Anger? Loss? Faith? Freedom?

For some, the motivation is crystal clear. Some of the greatest athletes on the planet run to escape poverty, using the financial incentives of running fast to create life-altering changes in their future economic status. Most runners, however—whether at the high school, college, or recreational level—will never pursue running as a profession for monetary gain. To achieve your best as a runner, you have to dig hard to find out where your desire really comes from.

My own incentive was always centered on an unwavering pursuit of excellence. I knew I had a gift for running, and I wanted to get at every single ounce of my talent. I wanted the assurance that I had accomplished all that was physically and emotionally possible. In order to honor that gift, I had to see how good I could get, and after my first year and a half of college I never again doubted that I was going to see it all the way through.

Without a true and clear understanding of your primary incentive, you may fall short of your ultimate potential. Being honest about your desire and true to your incentive will lead to your best performances.

2) Know What You Want to Accomplish

You have to have a clear understanding of what you want to achieve as a runner—a specific end goal that is important to you. Breaking 3 hours in the marathon or qualifying for the Boston Marathon are clear, focused goals. Vague statements such as “I just want to finish well” or “I want to get fit” or “I want to run fast” are not. Those statements might be true, but they’re not ultimate goals. In this way, you will create a laser-sharp focus and achieve the best possible results.

Don’t be swayed by peers or friends or training partners. Instead, think about what will give you the continual motivation to see your goals come to fruition. Focusing on a specific time for race distances is a good, clear goal, but it’s important that your goals be both realistic and challenging—not too easy or too hard to attain. Narrow in on your race goal based on previous efforts, training, and running history. These are all good indicators of what is realistic.

Your goals and aspirations are really important only to you, so you need to own them and live by them. Write them down in a notebook, on a calendar, on your smartphone. Pick the top five things you want to accomplish for a given year or training period. These can be time goals, placing goals, qualifying marks, age-group accomplishments, records, or new personal bests. These goals should be something to reach for but not unattainable—lofty yet realistic. Writing them down gives you a reference point, a reminder that this is important to you, and will allow you to reflect back on and rekindle your baseline motivation. It’s normal to lose enthusiasm during the course of your training, so having your goals written down can be a vital tool to refocus and constantly remind you of your ultimate purpose.

3) Commit to Reaching Your Goals

Once you’re clear on what you want to accomplish, you have to make the commitment that you will do everything in your power to achieve those goals. That might sound extreme or even obsessive, but if you want to achieve something significant, something lofty, then you must have a clear and unwavering commitment from the onset. That includes developing or following a training plan, going out of your way to make time to run and doing the extra stuff (strength work, cross-training, diet, etc.) to make it all happen.

You must fine-tune your goals, state your intentions, and commit to them 100 percent. In doing so, you will create self-perpetuating momentum because once you commit, you are less likely to go back— only forward. You can’t erase the fact that you’ve said you are going for it, nor will you be able to easily let yourself off the hook. Your goals become a powerful source of long-term motivation and allow you to use the passion connected to them to do the necessary work on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis.

That means there’s no room for excuses, laziness, or self-doubt. Sure, you will have doubts, setbacks, and obstacles along the way. Every runner does. But continually invigorated by your goals and long-term progress and galvanized by your psychological commitment, you will be able to face those challenges head-on. Develop mantras to reinstate your commitment, and use verbal reinforcements to maintain your momentum. On a regular basis, remind yourself, “I am not going to let a fear of disappointment, a doubt in my ability, a fear of getting injured, or momentary lapses in focus stop me. I am ready to do what it takes to not get derailed and will maintain my consistent commitment to the goal.” Or it can be something as simple as “I am physically strong, mentally powerful, and committed to my goals, and I can conquer minor setbacks along the way.”

4) Track Your Progress

Habitually recording your workouts in a training log is much like keeping a diary or journal. People keep diaries and journals for reflection, and a training log is similar in many aspects. By reflecting on your training, you stay engaged and focused on not only the goal but also the process.

A training diary is a psychological aspect of training that is often underestimated. Some runners brush off the idea of keeping a record of what they did in the buildup to a particular event. “What’s the point?” they wonder. Meanwhile, other runners are in upload overload with GPS devices or other modern technological tools. Uploading data from your training has become a substitute for keeping a training diary. But, as in the case of writing down your goals, the practice of actually writing down your daily training activities can have a profound influence on your actually reaching them. Keeping a journal is another step in creating significance and psychological purpose for your running.

It is hard to remember the workouts you did last week, much less where you ran, what times you hit, or how you felt. By keeping a training log you not only create significance through an intentional act of recording your training but also have a record, an accurate account of what you are doing in preparation. You can refer back to any point in your training log to compare your workouts or simply to reflect on your training to build confidence.

5) Keep It Fresh

Rough patches happen in training. Even if you are a highly motivated and determined individual, there will be times during your training when you may find your enthusiasm waning and your mental strength getting flimsy. That’s normal. All runners go through periods where they feel like they are physically or mentally flat and are merely slogging through workouts, going through the motions.

You need your fire to be burning hotter than ever as race day approaches so that when the time comes, you can push yourself beyond perceived physical and mental limits. Your mental approach to training should be modeled with that end goal in mind, which means implementing measures that allow you to stay mentally fresh and fired up throughout the training process. Strategies for staying mentally fresh include being clear about your priorities, maintaining a balanced (rather than obsessive) perspective, and doing your best to craft a lifestyle that fosters your training along with everything else. A positive and focused mental approach will help you hurdle barriers that are bound to arise, such as dealing with the weather, combatting illness, training while traveling, and juggling family and work commitments.

To prohibit them from becoming bigger problems, it’s key to foster and maintain a strong and positive mental approach. Training well takes not just physical exertion but mental exertion as well. But that’s OK; you need pressures and challenges to become mentally stronger, a tool in your toolbox that will serve you well on race day. However, your training should not leave you mentally flat come race time. Your objective is always to be ready when it counts, and being mentally fresh will help to make that possible.

6) Trust Your Instincts

Sometimes small decisions can affect the emotional toll of a given run or workout. Questions you ask yourself include: Where should I run a particular session? What loop should I choose on a given easy day? Should it be an out-and-back? Should I do the workout on the track, on the road, or on a trail? Should the run be hilly or flat? Should I run on a treadmill?

Choices you make depend on such variables as your schedule, the weather, or the requirements of the session. Trusting in your inclinations for a particular day (provided the decision does not jeopardize the productivity of the run or workout) will lift some of the mental burden associated with the actual training.

This is not an excuse to let yourself off the hook and avoid the hard efforts required in training. Much the opposite, actually. Taking the edge off psychologically whenever possible by making choices that reflect how you feel on a particular day will allow you to run with focus and intention during those hard workouts and will give you the mental bandwidth to dig deep without repercussions. There are certainly times when you have to just get the workout done because it is the type of session that requires a measured course, calls for being on the track, or has other constraints. But training is hard enough without making it harder by adding emotional stress. When you have a workout that can be accomplished in a variety of settings, choose with your mental disposition in mind.

These signals get easier to read over time, but some folks still choose to ignore them. In contrast, I have known athletes who take a few days off at any sign of discomfort, fatigue, or running nose. Be realistic and honest; your instincts about your own body and system are the best counsel.

Two-time U.S. Olympian Alan Culpepper won national titles from the 5K to the marathon. He coaches a wide range of runners through

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