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How Olympic Medalist Deena Kastor Trains for Her Mental Game

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Photo: John Lamparski/Getty Images

Conventional wisdom says the best athletes are the hardest on themselves, which is what gets them to the top. Not so in the case of marathon runner Deena Kastor. She’s won an Olympic medal (bronze in the women's marathon at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games) and multiple U.S. running records, yet remains optimistic to the point of thinking, “you know what, who really cares?” at the end of races. In Kastor's eyes, wanting to improve and thinking positive thoughts aren't mutually exclusive. “I think a lot of runners struggle with negativity,” she says. And she knows because she was one of them. “But you can be self-critical in a non-judgmental way in a form of ‘how can you get better than you are today?’” (Here's how to make running more enjoyable, according to Boston Marathon runners.)

In her new memoir, Let Your Mind Run, Kastor details how she went from being self-critical to finding a more positive approach. For the first half of her running career, she says she judged herself harshly and got worked up over any perceived shortcomings. When a coach gave her books on mental training—specifically The Celestine Prophecy and Power vs. Force—she became fascinated by the subject. She went on to read The Way of the Peaceful Warrior and The Closing of the American Mind, and The Power of Positive Thinking and started to manipulate her thoughts. (In case you're wondering: Positive thinking really works, according to science.)

Keep reading for three of the tricks she used to change—and maintain—her rose-colored mindset.

1. Daily Gratitude Lists

At the suggestion of a friend, Kastor started making daily gratitude lists. Kastor realized that as the week went on, it got harder to think of new things to be grateful for, so she started actively looking for things throughout the day. “You start searching for things to add to your list, and when you’re focused on the things that bring you joy, then the negativity automatically recedes into the background,” she says. (Not to mention, gratitude can legitimately boost your health.) If you're looking to adopt a more positive attitude, she recommends that you start by writing down three things you're grateful for at the end of each day. (Or try this simple gratitude practice you can do every day.)

2. Self-Talk

Kastor says she used to think writing words in red lipstick on her mirror was just a flashy ego boost. But after seeing studies about the neurological effects of self-talk, she decided that self-talk can be a valuable tool. (Like this study, for example, which found that third-person self-talk makes regulating your emotions easier.) “If we reinforce thoughts like ‘I am generous’ or ‘I pay attention,’ those types of thoughts will more powerfully resonate with our bodies,” she says.

3. Strategic Joy

Kastor uses positivity to enhance her running, too. “I used to despise long runs chasing men that were faster than me,” Kastor remembers. (Kastor was one of the Boston Maraton runners we tapped to share their tricks on making long runs more enjoyable—read on.) “Sundays were awful in my mind.” She started using what she refers to as “strategic joy” to change how she felt. Instead of barely waking up in time to pop out the door and run, she started enjoying scones and French press over the Sunday New York Times. “I would go out and practice and already in a better mood because I’d already pampered myself in the morning with things that I enjoyed,” she says. 

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