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How to Blast Past Your Biggest Fitness Challenges

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On Sunday, 25-year-old Tatyana McFadden will line up with 45,000 other runners in the starting corral of the Bank of America Chicago Marathon. But this champion marathoner (she’s won Chicago four times and holds the women’s wheelchair course record, in addition to being a Paralympics sprinter) has had to work harder than most of her fellow competitors to get where she is today.

Born in Russia with spina bifida, she spent her first six years in an orphanage, walking on her hands instead of her paralyzed legs. She didn’t get her first wheelchair until Debbie McFadden, who’d visited the orphanage on a business trip, adopted her and brought her to Baltimore in 1994. Soon after, Tatyana joined local wheelchair sports organization Bennet Blazers and began racing toward her athletic destiny.

The athlete (whose Paralympics teammates call “The Beast” for her upper-body strength) told Shape.com what she’s learned about overcoming adversity. The lessons she shared can help you sail over the hurdles between you and your fitness goals.

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You’re Bored or in a Rut
Get past it by:
Challenging yourself with a totally different routine
After earning silver and bronze medals for sprinting at the 2004 Summer Paralympics in Athens, McFadden felt content, but her coach thought she could benefit from expanding her horizons. When he suggested she try the Chicago Marathon, “I looked at him like he was crazy,” she says. That would mean doing the 400-meter distance about 100 times. But she gave it a shot—and won in 2009, her first time out. “I grew to love marathons and the hard work involved, and the training fit nicely into my training for track as well,” she says. McFadden experienced something even gym beginners figure out: switching up your routine or taking on a challenge you’d never considered can spark your motivation and energy.

You’re Discouraged by a Poor Showing 
Get past it by:
Keeping your eyes on your goal
Last year, McFadden took on a new sport: cross-country skiing, hoping to make the team for the 2014 Winter Paralympics in Sochi. But at the first qualifying event, her times were less than stellar. What kept her mojo from circling the drain? Instead of dwelling on her meh performance, she focused on her longtime dream of uniting her birth family and adoptive family in Sochi. With her eyes trained on this goal, she re-evaluated her training, refined her technique, and improved enough to earn a spot. In March, with both families watching, she scored silver in the 1-kilometer sprint. The takeaway: Focusing hard on what you hope to accomplish prevents you from reacting to every little setback and instead see the bigger picture.

You Had a Crappy Workout—or Two, or Three
Get past it by:
 Push through by amping your intensity
Transitioning back to marathoning earlier this year was one of the hardest things McFadden’s ever done. While training for Sochi, she’d gained so much muscle mass she could barely fit into her racing chair, and her endurance had suffered. “It was so difficult I thought to myself, did I forget how to wheelchair race?” she says. “I would take a stroke and my arms would be like Jell-O.” With specific training, she got back in the groove. And when it came time to compete, she drew on these tough workouts for strength. Now, anytime she has an off day, “I tell myself, I put in the hard work, the time, and the preparation,” she says. “It’s about believing in what I can do.” Bottom line: when the going gets tough, force yourself to power through.

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You Run Out of Steam in the Final Minutes of a Race or Workout
Get past it by:
Developing a finishing kick
To ace the flat, fast course at Chicago, McFadden had to work on picking up the pace at the finish line, when her energy was really flagging. He coach came up with a technique: whistle drills. “When Adam blows the horn, you sprint to the finish, forcing you to keep up your continuous high-speed pace going around the track,” says McFadden. “That mimics a marathon: If someone sprints ahead, you have to catch them and then regroup, while still going at a high speed.” No need to pay someone to sound a whistle while you’re at the finish line—thinking of how good you’ll feel when you cross it and how proud you’ll feel of your accomplishments can do the trick.

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