Why you need a running mantra

To achieve your running goals, powerful legs and big lungs aren't enough-you also need a strong head. Doubts and distractions can derail your attempts, but a well-chosen mantra can keep you calm and on target. "Repeating choice words whenever you need to focus helps direct your mind away from negative thoughts and toward a positive experience," says Stephen Walker, Ph.D., a sports psychologist in Boulder, Colorado.

Set the right running pace

The Sanskrit word "mantra" literally means "instrument for thinking." As such, these short words or phrases have long been used to focus the mind in meditation, says David K. Ambuel, Ph.D., professor of philosophy at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia.

An effective mantra addresses what you want to feel, not the adversity you're trying to overcome, says Robert J. Bell, Ph.D., a certified consultant of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. In fact, when discomfort strikes, the worst thing you can do is embrace the pain, says Walker. "When you start thinking, 'Oh, this hurts, Oh, I have a side stitch, Oh, my legs are tired'-those negative thoughts pile on," he says. A good mantra diverts your mind from thoughts that reinforce the pain to thoughts that help you transcend it.

How to avoid hitting a runner's roadblock

So what makes a good mantra? One that's short, positive, instructive, and full of action words. Walker suggests preparing multiple mantras before a race tailored to various challenges. And don't limit yourself to "real" words. A made-up word works for Tara Anderson, a 34-year-old runner in Boulder who recites, "Lighter, softer, faster, relaxer." "I repeat it with each footstrike, and if I'm having a problem, I'll repeat the relevant part until I'm in the flow," she says. Her phrase helped her take three minutes off her 10-K best in 2009. Here's how you, too, can wring some running magic out of a few well-chosen words.

Mantra Maker-How to put together your perfect phrase

Keep it short
Your mantra should be an affirmation, not a novel. "When you're tired, you don't want something elaborate," says Stephen Walker. "It's too hard to remember." Keep it to five seconds or less.

Stay positive
Think of the problem you're trying to counteract and turn it around. "If you're feeling weak, your mantra should be I am strong," says Walker.

Make it energetic
Your mantra should center on action verbs or strong adjectives, not abstract phrases, says Robert J. Bell. Look for words that convey energy, like "fast," "strong," or "power."

Embed instructions
Use the mantra to remind yourself what you plan to do or how you want to feel as you're running, says Walker. Now is the time; go for it. Or, Run relaxed. Finish strong.

When to train eat, stretch, and do everything to run your best

Choose one word from each column below to create a motivational, get-it-done power chant.

Do As We Say: RW staffers and the words that carry them through
"Light and smooth." -MARK REMY, Executive Editor (Online)
"Just stay calm." -TISH HAMILTON, Executive Editor
"Turn and burn." -NICK GALAC, Associate Photo Editor
"One mile at a time." -AMBY BURFOOT, Editor at Large

So, tell me: What mantra gets you through your toughest runs?

Susan Rinkunas is an associate editor at Runner's World, a magazine (and website) that informs, advises, and motivates runners of all ages and abilities-and we mean it. Her blog on Yahoo! Shine offers tips on running technique, nutrition and weight loss, shoes and apparel, and balancing fitness and life.

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