Everyone has had one those moments mid-workout where you just want to throw in the towel and quit. Whether it’s because of the pouring rain, a pounding headache, sheer exhaustion, or the fact that you just aren’t feeling it, one thing separates those who give in from those who push forward and ultimately get fitter, stronger, and healthier: mental tenacity. Zoë Romano, a 25-year-old University of Richmond graduate, knows a thing or two on the subject. Right now, she’s in the midst of running the Tour de France course (yes, you read that right—running!) to raise at least $100,000 for the World Pediatric Project, a charity that helps critically ill children and brings healthcare to developing nations. Romano will run an average of 30 miles per day over the course of two months and finish the 2,000-mile course on July 20—just one day ahead of when the pro cyclists will get there. This isn’t the first time she’s put her physical—and mental—limits to the test, either. In 2011, she ran 2,867 miles across the US, becoming the first female to do so unsupported.
“Most of us will hit a mental barrier before the true physical barrier,” says Romano. “If you can get past that mental block of thinking, ‘I can’t possibly do this,’ you’ll see that youcan—and that accomplishment will motivate you to keep pushing to achieve new goals and set new standards for yourself.”
Good genetics and proper physical training obviously play a big role in whether you’ll be able to achieve your fitness goals, but ultimately the consistent application of key mental skills also makes a huge difference, says Barbara Walker, PhD, an exercise and sport psychologist with The Center for Human Performance and a member of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. She and Romano agree: Everyone is capable of accomplishing fitness feats that far exceed what they probably think they can do. Here, Romano’s attitude-adjusting tips and smart strategies for amping up your own mental toughness—whether you plan to undertake a massive goal like hers or get through every single run on your 5K training plan.
Stick to a routine
The single most important aspect of Romano’s training: Making a routine—and sticking to it no matter what. While training for her Tour de France run, Romano did core work every morning, gradually longer runs every day, and stretching and recovery at night. “It sounds simple, but if you can develop a routine that feels like second nature, it becomes much harder to skip workouts or to psyche yourself out when it’s go-time because you have confidence in your methods,” says Romano.
Suck it up when you’re not feeling motivated
Planning to go for a run outside? Don’t hit the treadmill (or skip out all together) just because it’s sprinkling. It’s easy to run on a beautiful, sunny day, but that won’t be every day—and if you’re training for a race, it may not be race day, says Walker. Challenging yourself to get out there when you don’t feel like it—when you’re busy, tired, or the weather’s not ideal—boosts your discipline, says Romano. Plus, it’s that much more rewarding to finish a workout in tough conditions than in easy ones.
Have a role model
Looking up to someone in your sport can help you to boost your aspirations and build resilience in the face of difficulties. If you’re a distance runner, think Deena Kastor or Kara Goucher. If you’re a swimmer, Dara Torres. Cyclists can aspire to the ranks of Specialized-Lululemon riders Evie Stevens and Ally Stacher. Romano’s idol is Kilian Jornet, an ultra runner and adventurer. “Whenever I have an especially tough day or a hard climb ahead, I ask myself, ‘WWKJD? (What Would Kilian Jornet Do?)’” says Romano. “The answer is always: ‘Kilian Jornet would kill it. Every time.’”
Focus on what you can control
“When running across the U.S., the toughest days on the road were the ones when I got lost or off-track,” says Romano. “Instead of getting caught up in the frustration of something I can’t control, I focus on my breathing, my pace and my attitude—things I do have a say in.” This technique helps prevent negative thinking and direct attention away from the things over with you have no power—so your mind stays focused on the bigger goal, says Walker.
Know why you’re out there
“The fact that this run is more than just a run and that it’s ultimately changing children’s lives for the better is huge inspiration for me to keep moving when I just want to sit down and sleep,” says Romano. There will be days when you’re down and out, or sore, or just not feeling it—and knowing you’re out there for a deeper reason (whether it’s raising money for a charity or to make yourself stronger and healthier) will give you a huge boost, says Walker.
Fuel your body—and mind
“It’s not just the physical effect of proper nutrition that helps, but also that feeling of empowerment, knowing you’re taking care of yourself, and making healthy choices and fueling up for life,” says Romano, who plans to eat Health Warrior Chia Seeds and Chia Bars to stay physically and mentally strong while on her runs. “There’s a huge psychological component to what we eat—even if it’s a placebo effect, knowing you ate well and your body is running on high-quality fuel is powerful,” says Walker.
photo: courtesy of Zoe Romano
Published on June 5th, 2013