Two months into her grueling 2007 Arctic expedition, well past the point a normal person would have collapsed in tears, Rosie Stancer was still gung ho. The British adventurer, now 49, was hauling sleds that bore almost twice her body weight in an attempt to become the first woman to travel solo to the North Pole. Temperatures were dipping to minus 60°F, she’d lost two toes to frostbite, and the 478-mile route was littered with boulder-size ice chunks and gaps of open water. “I had a few tearful hissy fits,” Stancer admits. “What kept me going was my fool’s optimism.”
Every athlete has experienced good days, when their legs seem supercharged, and bad days, when every turn of the pedals feels like pushing an anvil uphill. Increasingly, science suggests these variations aren’t just random. In a 2007 study at the London Marathon, for instance, runners suffering from similar amounts of fatigue turned in a wide range of finishes. Those who faltered were often demoralized before the event, while those who excelled were optimistic. The ever upbeat Stancer came within 102 miles of her goal, despite some of the worst Arctic conditions on record. Lucky for most of us, a preposterously sunny disposition isn’t a prerequisite for athletic success. Doctors have ID’d specific strategies we can adopt—before, during, and after an event—to harness the power of a good mood.
Classify Your Butterflies
Adrenaline can be a double-edged sword. Sports psychologist Andrew Lane, Ph.D., has seen lab studies where “people feel so much pressure, they can’t do the simplest thing,” he says. If you tend to get tied up in knots, create distractions. Talk to your climbing partner about roping, or triple-check your equipment.
For others, though, stress is a stimulant. “Some 25 to 45 percent of athletes need to feel anxiety before competing,” says Jack Raglin, Ph.D., a sports psychologist at Indiana University. In that case, try focusing on a competitor you want to beat or a desired finish time. Remember: Basketball legend Bill Russell never felt truly ready without his pregame vomiting ritual.
It’s never too late to change your outlook. If you’re tired midway through a race, don’t dwell on it. Instead, break down your goals into manageable chunks. “Concentrate on executing each movement of your body,” Lane says. “Relaxing your shoulders can help stop a cycle of vicious thoughts.”
Or focus directly on the pain. Sure, your quads are screaming halfway up a Colorado fourteener. But let that remind you of the aches you experienced while training, says sports psychologist David Coppel, Ph.D., and you’ll remember how well prepared you are. If you can’t keep your spirits high during a rough patch, then dissociate altogether. Top marathoners have been known to do complex math problems to keep their minds off the strain of a race.
How did you feel before polishing off your best century ride? What can you remember about that awful 10K? If you can isolate the emotions that caused dramatic swings in your results, says Lane, “you’re that much further along to regulating them in the future.” Once you’ve determined what feelings help you excel, you can hone specific strategies. Some cyclists will use every ounce of energy to stay with the lead riders; others convince themselves to hold back and store up for a big push later in the race. Small rewards can inspire big improvements. Stancer, who’s considering another shot at the Pole, knows that food motivates her. Because there’s nothing like the promise of chocolate to get you over a long hard stretch of Arctic slab.