Tips to Build Mental Strength from Pro Runner Kara Goucher
How one of the most recognized female runners in the U.S. battles negative self-talk.
Professional runner Kara Goucher (now 40 years old) competed in the Olympics when she was in college. She became the first and only U.S. athlete (man or woman) to medal in the 10,000m (6.2 miles) at the IAAF World Championships and has taken the podium at the New York City and Boston Marathons (which she ran the same year as the bombing).
Though she's known for her successes, grit, and fearless starting-line stance, Goucher revealed later in her professional career that, as far back as college, she has been in therapy for negative self-talk. Her willingness to discuss mental health is rare in the world of hyper-competitive athletics, where a weakness is kept a secret between athlete and coach-or often by the athlete alone.
"I've always struggled with self-doubt and talking myself out of good performances," Goucher tells Shape. "My senior year of college, I had an anxiety attack during a race and realized this was a big problem. I was in the lead but not pulling away and someone passed me. It felt like a nightmare. I flooded myself with negative thoughts: I don't deserve to be here. When I finished, I was barely moving. I had done the work to be physically ready but mentally ruined the opportunity. I discovered how powerful the mind is and learned that I needed to find someone that works with athletes' mental health, not just my coach or athletic trainer." (Related: How to Find the Best Therapist for You)
In August, after decades of flexing her mental strength, Goucher came out with an interactive book called Strong: A Runner's Guide to Boosting Confidence and Becoming the Best Version of You.
An advocate for working your mental strength as much as your lactic threshold, Goucher shared her favorite tips you can use (runner or otherwise) to silence self-doubt, ditch unhealthy comparisons, and prove to yourself that you can do anything. (Maybe even join the #IAMMANY movement.)
"These can be applied to so many things," says Goucher, "like going for that new job or your relationship with your husband and children."
1. Start a confidence journal.
As a pro runner, it's probably not surprising that every night, Goucher writes in her training journal to keep track of mileage. But that's not the only journal she keeps: She also writes nightly in a confidence journal, taking one or two minutes to write down something positive she did that day, no matter how small. "Mine is focused around athletics because that's where I feel the most anxiety," she says. "Today I did a workout I haven't done in a year, so I wrote that I showed up to the challenge."
The goal is to create a track record of how you yanked off the Band-Aid and got closer to your goals. "Looking back through my journal, I'm reminded of all the great things I've already done to reach to my goals," she says. (Journaling may help you fall asleep faster, too.)
2. Dress to feel powerful.
Wear the clothes that make you feel the most strong.
"Have a uniform-whether it's a warm-up kit or special office suit-that only comes out on days you need an extra boost," says Goucher. She suggests saving these clothes for special occasions so when you put them on, you'll know it's "go time" and that you've done all the necessary work to reach that moment.
Use this strategy to help crush your toughest workout of the week or feel confident going into your six-month performance review at work.
3. Pick a power word.
You might know it better as a mantra, but finding a word or phrase to whisper to yourself during moments of negative self-talk can help get you through tough times. Goucher's favorites: I deserve to be here. I belong. Fighter. Unrelenting.
"Then on the starting line or before a big interview, if things aren't going well, you can whisper your power word and conjure up the past months of getting through adversity," says Goucher.
Pick one or two power words or mantras that focus on you instead of others. "If you're mentally strong, you're focusing on your journey and your path and you can release comparison," says Goucher. "Imagine if we couldn't see anyone else. We'd be saying, 'I'm doing great!'"
Negative words and comparisons won't have room to sneak in when you're focusing on doing your best and rooting yourself on.
4. Use Instagram…sometimes.
Goucher gives credit to social media for its power to build supportive social connections that can amp your mental strength. "Share your journey, including your good and bad days, so people can rally around you," she says. But if you spend hours flipping through Instagram thinking about how much healthier an influencer's meal or workout is than yours, it's time to power down. (Related: This Fitness Blogger's Photo Teaches Us Not to Trust Everything On Instagram)
"There are 50 unpublished pictures someone took before getting that one perfect running shot when they're suspended in the air. Even the fittest people come down on the ground," says Goucher. "No one is posting how they're binge eating cookies and going back for their fifth handful of M&M's."
But since social media tends to show the good days, it makes it a bit easier to surround yourself with really positive people-a trick Goucher uses both on the 'gram and in regular life.
"Having strong connections, friendships, coworkers, and training partners can help you get to where you want to be," says Goucher.
5. Set micro-goals.
The word "goals" can be stress-inducing all on its own. That's why Goucher recommends setting micro-goals that can be easily crushed and celebrated.
Turn your reach-for-the-stars goal into more digestible micro-goals. For example, change I want to run a marathon into I want to increase my mileage this week, or I want to get a new job into I want to revamp my resume.
"Celebrate those little goals and give yourself credit," adds Goucher.
Micro-goals help you feel more accomplished since you're consistently checking them off and moving to the next small step. This builds a momentum and, eventually, you'll be standing at the precipice of your big goal saying: I've done all the prep work and I'm not afraid. I deserve to be here, I am powerful, and I am ready.