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Steal This Running Legend’s Mental Strategies for Success

Sub-4 minute miler Roger Bannister had a lot to teach us about the power of positive thinking.

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Before Sir Roger Bannister became the first person to run a mile in under four minutes, people did not think it was humanly possible—one theory said your heart might explode. But after the British middle-distance runner clocked 3:59.4 on May 6, 1954, others quickly followed in his footsteps. It took less than two months for someone else to break his record—and many followed soon after. Running that fast for that long was simply inconceivable…until it wasn’t.

“There is actually a psychological theory—a social cognitive theory by Albert Bandura—that explains how when other people model specific tasks for us, we then believe we can do it ourselves,” says Cindra Kampho, who has a doctorate from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in sport and exercise psychology. She’s also a certified mental performance consultant and author of Beyond Grit: Ten Powerful Practices to Gain the High-Performance Edge.

“Bannister showed athletes that they could exceed false assumptions and thus, false conceptual boundaries evaporated,” says Roy Sugarman, the director of the applied neuroscience performance innovation team at Team EXOS’ performance center. “Runners began to reinvent their own conceptions of their own limits.” We all create invisible walls for ourselves. However, the key to breaking through them—like Bannister—is not waiting for another athlete to do it first. You simply need to stomp out any negative thoughts that may be holding you back (and train really, really hard, of course). Check out Kampho ‘s “CAR Shift” strategy:

Catch It. Be aware of any recurring negative thoughts. For example, “What if I get run over in the swim?”

Address It. You can either talk back to it, or simply let it pass. For example, tell yourself, “I swim in open water every week. I can do this.”

Refocus. You need to stop thinking and instead, focus on doing. For example, put all of your mental energy into your warm-up.

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A few other tricks for success:

Trust in your training. “The invisible barrier is best shattered by trusting in your history and your track record of incremental improvement,” Sugarman says.

Stay positive. “Create a power phrase for yourself. It should start with ‘I am,’ ” he suggests. “Then think of three attributes that you need to embody to reach your goal. For example, to become a Kona qualifier, you need to be dedicated, tough, and mentally strong. So your power phrase would be, ‘I am dedicated, I am tough, I am mentally strong.’ Say it enough times, and you’ll start to believe it.”

Practice Visualization. “The executive functions of the brain, which we tap into by visualization, can simulate outcomes based on past competitive events, but with modifications that demonstrate breaking through performance walls in a way the brain accepts as viable reality,” Sugarman says. “This exerts a calming influence and lets the genie out of the lamp for magic in the pool, bike, and road.”

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