Run Like a Champion: Six Steps to Developing a Psychology of Success

In this chapter from Run Like a Champion: An Olympian’s Approach for Every Runner, two-time Olympic runner Alan Culpepper shares the 6 sport psychology steps that helped him find running success at the highest levels of the sport.

STEP 1: Recognize Your Incentive

If you’re reading this book, there is a good chance that you are motivated to improve as a runner, want to learn how to train better, are open to making adjustments, and want to pursue your running goals to the fullest. Now you’ve got to come to grips with why you’re doing it. What is your source of motivation? What does your desire to run the best you possibly can stem from? There are no right or wrong answers, but it takes honest introspection to determine why you want to run. You can’t pretend to be someone you are not, physically, mentally, or emotionally. I could not pretend to run out of anger or fabricate a desire to beat my competition out of spite that they even thought they could beat me. Be real about who you are and what drives you.

Before you dive into training, recognize and embrace the incentive. After all, it is that singular motivating factor that you will fall back on when the training gets hard, when you start to lose some of that initial excitement and motivation, when you get into a training rut, or when the weather is bad and you don’t feel like getting out there. Why do you want to go through all that is necessary to reach your goal? Is it out of joy? Anger? Disappointment? Loss? Faith? Need for freedom? Desire for attention? Without a true and clear understanding of your primary incentive, you may fall short of your ultimate potential. This is not meant to put you through a therapy session but rather just an exercise to gain a realistic understanding about why you’re pursuing your running goals.

For some, the motivation is crystal clear. Some of the greatest athletes on the planet run to escape poverty, using the financial incentives of running fast to create life-altering changes in their future economic status. Most runners, however—whether at the high school, college, or recreational level—will never pursue running as a profession for monetary gain. To achieve your best as a runner, you have to dig hard to find out where your desire really comes from.

My own incentive was always centered on an unwavering pursuit of excellence. I knew I had a gift for running, and I wanted to get at every single ounce of my talent. I wanted the assurance that I had accomplished all that was physically and emotionally possible. In order to honor that gift, I had to see how good I could get, and after my first year and a half of college I never again doubted that I was going to see it all the way through.

I also liked that what I was doing was unconventional and that not many people could do it (or wanted to do it). And I liked the fact that running’s noteworthy accomplishments were so quantifiable. I was competitive, and when I was side by side with other runners with a lap to go, I wanted to win. I wanted to win not out of distaste for my competitors but because I wanted to achieve excellence. Winning was proof that I was getting the most out of my talent.

To reach your full potential as a runner and achieve your short- and long-term goals, explore what motivates you. Being honest about your desire and true to your incentive will lead to your best performances.

STEP 2: Know What You Want to Accomplish 

The next phase in ensuring that your psychology is aligned with success is having a clear understanding of what you want to accomplish as a runner—the end goal. For some runners, this is second nature—you know exactly why you are putting yourself through the rigors of training and racing. Others find it harder to nail down clear goals or have never tried to do so. You have to eliminate confusion or vagueness before you get started so that your focus is clear.

Qualifying for the Boston Marathon is a focused, clear goal. Vague statements such as “I just want to finish well” or “I want to get fit” or “I want to run fast” are not. Those statements might be true, but they’re not ultimate goals. Choose specific goals that are important to you. In this way, you will create a laser-sharp focus and achieve the best possible results.

Don’t be swayed by peers or friends or training partners. Instead, think about what will give you the continual motivation to see your goals come to fruition. Focusing on a specific time for race distances is a good, clear goal, but it’s important that your goals be both realistic and challenging—not too easy or too hard to attain. Narrow in on your race goal based on previous efforts, training, and running history. These are all good indicators of what is realistic.

For example, if you’ve only run one or two marathons, and your training has been spotty or unfocused up to now, chances are you can cut a lot of time in your next marathon if you’re committing to better training and following an Olympic approach. If, say, you have a 3:48 marathon PR and you’ve never averaged more than 35 miles per week and rarely done advanced workouts, then there’s a good chance you can make big gains in your next marathon training program. But aiming for a time that is considerably faster than your PR—say, 3:20 to 3:25—is a goal that must be tempered by many variables, including your current fitness level, the commitment you’ll honestly make to your training, your past athletic history, and your age.

If you’ve run several marathons and trained well in the past but always seemed to run in the same range—say, 3:05 to 3:10—then you might consider shooting for a more moderate goal of breaking 3:00. The faster you get, the harder it is to make significant time reductions. Also, age can play a factor. Generally speaking, the older you get, the harder it is to reach times you might have run when you were 5 or 10 years younger.

The challenge in setting goals tied to race times is ensuring that they are realistic and properly gauged against these and other factors. Working with a coach who knows your running history, understands your athletic makeup, and has an idea about what kind of training you’ll be doing can help refine goals related to race times.

You need to think through not only your long-term goals but also those in the immediate and near future as you build up to those larger goals. Your goals will help dictate how you train. For example, whether your ultimate goal is to run a 3:35 or a 2:40 marathon, you’ll have to plan your weekly mileage volume during your base phase accordingly, and your goal will also dictate the length and pace of your tempo runs and long race-pace runs. Specific training goals are an integral part of a proper training program.

As I mentioned in the introduction to this book, as a young high school runner I wrote on a slip of paper that I wanted to make the U.S. Olympic Team. Writing specific goals down might seem inconsequential or unrealistic—perhaps even silly. But naming your goal and writing it down are very real steps toward psychologically committing to and investing in achieving that goal.

Today many runners are instructed to focus on more general achievements. But I believe that clearly defining what you want to accomplish is extremely important. The reality is that writing down your specific goals makes them more real, more important, more significant, more tangible—and thus more achievable.

Let’s be honest, the essence of performance-oriented running—trying to get from one place to another as quickly as you can while suffering immensely in the process—is really kind of silly and somewhat insignificant. I mean, there’s no real point to making yourself run fast over an otherwise arbitrary course from Point A to Point B unless it means something to you. (The same can be said about just about any sport if you look at it that way.) That’s precisely why you have to create your own personal significance if you want to accomplish your specific goals.

Your goals and aspirations are really important only to you, so you need to own them and live by them. Write them down in a notebook, on a calendar, on your smartphone. Pick the top five things you want to accomplish for a given year or training period. These can be time goals, placing goals, qualifying marks, age-group accomplishments, records, or new personal bests. These goals should be something to reach for but not unattainable—lofty yet realistic. Writing them down gives you a reference point, a reminder that this is important to you, and will allow you to reflect back on and rekindle your baseline motivation. It’s normal to lose enthusiasm during the course of your training, so having your goals written down can be a vital tool to refocus and constantly remind you of your ultimate purpose.

STEP 3: Commit to Achieving Your Goals 

Now that you are clear on what it is you want to accomplish, you have to make the commitment, before you even get into the training, that you will do everything in your power to achieve these goals. This may sound extreme or even obsessive, but if you want to achieve something significant, something lofty, then you must have a clear and unwavering commitment from the onset. That includes developing or following a plan, making the time, and doing the work to make it all happen.

This book details an Olympian’s approach to running, and one thing Olympic athletes of all disciplines share is this unwavering commitment to the pursuit of their goals. They’re undeterred in their belief that they will accomplish what they set out to achieve. This does not mean that high-level athletes do not have moments of doubt or at times lack self-discipline or desire. They also have occasions when they fail and feel the unmistakable pain of disappointment. Everyone experiences those emotions from time to time. The difference is that high-level athletes do not let those situations and variables overpower their desire to succeed.

In the fall of 2007, I was assisting U.S. Olympic hopeful and former University of Colorado All-American runner Jorge Torres with a few workouts. He was working with Coach Steve Jones, a legendary runner who formerly held the world record in the marathon. Up to that point, Jorge had been an improving national-class runner who had won an NCAA cross country championship and qualified to represent the United States in one world championship. He had posted some very good times in the 10,000 and was certainly a top contender to make the 2008 U.S. Olympic team, but he wasn’t a shoo-in by any means.

One morning after a workout, Jorge and I were talking, and the topic of the following summer’s U.S. Olympic Trials came up. I was surprised to hear in his tone a distinct hesitation and lack of certainty in his ability to make the team. Although he said he was confident he could make the team based on his 2007 performances, he did not come across as being fully committed emotionally to those words. Subtle clues in his word choices when talking about his goals revealed that he lacked conviction. He also admitted that he lacked focus, often allowing the chance to go golfing or work on projects around the house interrupt his training and, more importantly, distract from his commitment. To my mind, this was not a psychology for success. What he needed was an unwavering belief that he would make that team, a rock-solid belief in himself and his ability to qualify, and the commitment to do everything it would take to make it happen. I told him, “You have to decide today, right here, that you are going to make that team—that nothing is going to deter your commitment and focus on that goal. No injuries, illness, distractions, or anything else are going to keep you from making that team.” I wasn’t criticizing him but rather offering what I hoped was constructive motivation based on my experiences in training for the Olympic Trials as well as what I had seen among high-level international runners.

For American runners, the U.S. Olympic Trials are unlike any other race of their career. The pressure to perform is monumental because the trials are a one-shot deal every four years. Either you run well and make the team, or you miss out and wait four more years for another chance. Jorge was an excellent competitor and knew how to race tough and how to win. Mentally, he reasoned that he could certainly make the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team in the 10,000-meter run; however, he was not ready to make the emotional commitment to earning that spot on the team. He was flirting with the allure of letting himself slip into a vague commitment based on previous times and race results. No matter what level of runner you are, you cannot be less than 100 percent committed emotionally and expect to hold up when the pressure reaches a crescendo at an important target race. Instead of having a bold and confident determination, he was at risk of training for the Olympic Trials just to see where the chips would fall without the added expectation of accomplishing the larger goal.

Seven months later, Jorge ran a strong race in the Olympic Trials 10,000-meter final in Eugene, Oregon, and placed third with a 6-second cushion over the fourth-place runner. Despite a less-than-optimal buildup, his objective was unmistakable, and it was reflected in how he ran. There was no way he wasn’t going to make the team that night. I am not suggesting that his success was based on our little talk, but he did tell me later that his mind-set changed that day and he spent the ensuing months adhering to an all-encompassing psychological commitment that complemented his physical abilities and preparation and allowed him to hone his objective with razor-sharp focus.

So how about you? Can you announce your specific goals right now— by writing them down—and are you willing to make both the mental and emotional commitment necessary to achieve those goals? You don’t have to be an Olympic-caliber runner to make that commitment; without that kind of mental foundation and focus, you’ll be hard-pressed to reach lofty goals, whatever they may be. In my experience, many runners can commit to the physical challenges—training, stretching, crosstraining, recovery, diet—but may fall short of making a full psychological commitment.

You must fine-tune your goals, state your intentions, and commit to them 100 percent. In doing so, you will create self-perpetuating momentum because once you commit, you are less likely to go back— only forward. You can’t erase the fact that you’ve said you are going for it, nor will you be able to easily let yourself off the hook. Your goals become a powerful source of long-term motivation and allow you to use the passion connected to them to do the necessary work on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis.

That means there’s no room for excuses, laziness, or self-doubt. Sure, you will have doubts, setbacks, and obstacles along the way. Every runner does. But continually invigorated by your goals and long-term progress and galvanized by your psychological commitment, you will be able to face those challenges head-on. Develop mantras to reinstate your commitment, and use verbal reinforcements to maintain your momentum. On a regular basis, remind yourself, “I am not going to let a fear of disappointment, a doubt in my ability, a fear of getting injured, or momentary lapses in focus stop me. I am ready to do what it takes to not get derailed and will maintain my consistent commitment to the goal.” Or it can be something as simple as “I am physically strong, mentally powerful, and committed to my goals, and I can conquer minor setbacks along the way.”

A continual reinstatement of a deep-rooted commitment will help you see goals through to fruition. This is not about being zealous and excitable—although enthusiasm is an important quality in a successful training period. Nor is a firm psychological commitment about being obsessive. Obsession is counterproductive because it can lead to getting distracted by things that are unimportant or out of your control, such as your competition, the weather, or the previous week’s workout splits. Great athletes hone the skill of being 100 percent committed along with being flexible, being passionate in a way that is sustainable.

Committing is about keeping your eye on the prize while taking care of the business on a daily basis and doing all you can to make progress toward your stated goals.

STEP 4: Track Your Progress 

The training diary is a psychological aspect of training that is often underestimated. Some runners brush off the idea of keeping a record of what they did in the buildup to a particular event. What’s the point? they wonder. Meanwhile, other runners are in upload overload with GPS devices or other modern technological tools. Uploading data from your training has become a substitute for keeping a training diary. But, as in the case of writing down your goals, the practice of actually writing down your daily training activities can have a profound influence on your actually reaching them. Keeping a journal is another step in creating significance and psychological purpose for your running.

It is hard to remember the workouts you did last week, much less where you ran, what times you hit, or how you felt. By keeping a training log you not only create significance through an intentional act of recording your training but also have a record, an accurate account of what you are doing in preparation. You can refer back to any point in your training log to compare your workouts or simply to reflect on your training to build confidence.

Keeping a training log is something Sam taught me when I was a teenager. He required me to turn in my training log every few weeks. When I first started tracking my training, I would jot down short notes of where I ran and how far. I would add up my miles and cram a month onto one page. He quickly put a stop to that and laid out a template that I wound up using for 20 years. He had me put one week per page in a spiral notebook. Each week included the date, the workout or run for the day, total mileage, and specifics of the sessions. Information such as what intervals I did and where, how much rest I took, warm-up and cooldown, and how I felt was also included.

Being able to record a good hard training session in my log was very satisfying and created significance. Across my career, I accumulated years of data—information that I was able to refer back to for insight into what worked for me, what did not work, why I got injured, or when I was getting sick or anemic. This record ultimately provided me with a finishing touch of confidence leading into a race. I would reflect back on the training I had accomplished and quickly be reminded of how much solid work I had put in and how many good weeks of mileage, high-quality long runs, and tough sessions I had pushed through.

While keeping a log may not be something you’ve considered, I cannot stress enough how important it is. This is not a trivial act of just scribbling something down on paper right before your head hits the pillow. It is part of the process of building confidence and ascribing meaning to your daily efforts.

An online log is better than nothing, but I believe something important takes place in the physical act of handwriting information. It’s similar to writing a letter versus typing an e-mail or text message. The old-fashioned writing process requires a higher level of engagement.

Habitually recording in a training log is much like keeping a diary or journal. People keep diaries and journals for reflection, and a training log is similar in many aspects. By reflecting on your training, you stay engaged and focused on not only the goal but also the process. If you have not kept one before, it may at first feel like homework or bad medicine. But once you get into the routine, I guarantee you will enjoy keeping track of your training and find satisfaction and reassurance in reviewing what you’ve written.

STEP 5: Keep It Fresh 

Your incentive is clear, your goals are defined, you have made a conscious decision to meter your emotional intensity, and you have committed to keeping a training log. Now let’s talk about how to get to the starting line feeling fresh, excited, and more confident than ever that you can accomplish your goals.

Even if you are a highly motivated and determined individual, there will be times during your training when you may find your enthusiasm waning and your mental strength getting flimsy. That’s normal. All runners go through periods where they feel like they are physically or mentally flat and are merely slogging through workouts, going through the motions.

It is typical to have days or even weeks during which your drive to train is less than optimal and your ultimate goal is the furthest thing from your mind. In fact, if you don’t have those periods during your training, you might not be working hard enough. Those flat periods come with hard training; cumulative fatigue; and variables such as weather, holidays, illness, and any number of other things that get in the way. But bouts of fatigue, lackluster motivation, or waning excitement, if allowed to fester, can start to chip away at your long-term mental outlook and compromise your psychological storehouse. I’ve witnessed—both as an athlete and as a coach—runners who start a training program with great intent and enthusiasm but little by little lose their desire. They lose connection with their motivation and stop caring about their ultimate goal or wind up operating with half the inspiration they had when they started. The fire goes out. And as you can expect, the end result is never what they had hoped for. We’ve all known runners like this; maybe you have been one yourself.

You need your fire to be burning hotter than ever as race day approaches so that when the time comes, you can push yourself beyond perceived physical and mental limits. Your mental approach to training should be modeled with that end goal in mind, which means implementing measures that allow you to stay mentally fresh and fired up throughout the training process. Strategies for staying mentally fresh include being clear about your priorities, maintaining a balanced (rather than obsessive) perspective, and doing your best to craft a lifestyle that fosters your training along with everything else.

A positive and focused mental approach will help you hurdle barriers that are bound to arise, such as dealing with the weather, combatting illness, training while traveling, and juggling family and work commitments. (I’ll address these barriers in more detail in the next chapter, “Creating Balance.”)

Rough patches happen. To prohibit them from becoming bigger problems, it is key to foster and maintain this strong and positive mental approach. Remember, training well takes not just physical exertion but mental exertion as well. And that’s not altogether a bad thing; you need pressures and challenges to become mentally stronger, a tool in your toolbox that will serve you well on race day. However, your training should not leave you mentally flat come race time. Your objective is always to be ready when it counts, and being mentally fresh will help to make that possible.

STEP 6: Trust Your Instincts 

Sometimes small decisions can affect the emotional toll of a given run or workout. Questions you ask yourself include: Where should I run a particular session? What loop should I choose on a given easy day? Should it be an out-and-back? Should I do the workout on the track, on the road, or on a trail? Should the run be hilly or flat? Should I run on a treadmill?

Choices you make depend on such variables as your schedule, the weather, or the requirements of the session. Trusting in your inclinations for a particular day (provided the decision does not jeopardize the productivity of the run or workout) will lift some of the mental burden associated with the actual training.

For example, I personally don’t like out-and-back runs, especially for long runs. I would rather run four 5-mile loops than go out 10 miles, then turn around and come back. In college, we would run a horrific out-and-back on a canal path that Coach Wetmore named the “Certain Death” run. (There was a sign along the canal that boldly stated, “WARNING: Certain Death if Entered. Dangerous Current Present.”)

We did some runs in college that were less than favorable, but this one in particular always left me mentally exhausted. Ten miles out, then turn around and head back to the car. No water, no Gatorade, alone after about 2 miles, and all at a 6-minute-mile pace. I felt like certain death every time we ran there, and I vowed to never run that path again after college. That run is a great example of how not every 20-mile run is created equal. For me, it added more mental load than necessary. Thus, when I was able to decide for myself, I tried to choose, whenever possible, what suited my mental disposition that day.

Once I left college and started training on my own, I would make the decision of where to run each day depending on how I felt emotionally. I would often leave my house not knowing what loop I wanted to run. I would get a few miles into the run and trust what felt right for that day: Go straight and do my loop called “Old Town,” or turn left and head toward Coal Creek. Either run was fine for an easy day; it just came down to what I wanted to do that day. Whatever felt mentally easier is what I would choose. If it was windy, I knew which loop I could run where I wouldn’t have to fight the wind. If it was snowy, I would choose the loop with the best footing.

One day, I had a track workout planned. It was in the middle of a particularly bad winter, and I had completed numerous sessions on the university indoor track. The indoor track was not ideal for multiple workouts in a given period. I decided to shovel the snow from lane one on the outdoor track and do my 200-meter repeats outside. Adding 45 minutes of shoveling was worth my time because it was so mentally refreshing to be on the outdoor track.

This is not an excuse to let yourself off the hook and avoid the hard efforts required in training. Much the opposite, actually. Taking the edge off psychologically whenever possible by making choices that reflect how you feel on a particular day will allow you to run with focus and intention during those hard workouts and will give you the mental bandwidth to dig deep without repercussions. There are certainly times when you have to just get the workout done because it is the type of session that requires a measured course, calls for being on the track, or has other constraints. But training is hard enough without making it harder by adding emotional stress. When you have a workout that can be accomplished in a variety of settings, choose with your mental disposition in mind.

The other time to trust your instincts is related to injury and illness, something I will discuss in more detail in my book Run Like a Champion. Too often athletes ignore clear cues. You wake up with an elevated heart rate or your throat is sore, and you know you are not feeling 100 percent. It is common to not want to deviate from the training program, and all too often athletes ignore those cues. It is an art form to recognize the difference between feeling a touch run-down or the normal aches and pains that accompany training hard and an illness that could become detrimental or a discomfort that could be an injury. These signals get easier to read over time, but some folks still choose to ignore them. In contrast, I have known athletes who take a few days off at any sign of discomfort, fatigue, or running nose. Be realistic and honest; your instincts about your own body and system are the best counsel.

In Run Like a Champion, one of America’s most versatile and accomplished runners, Alan Culpepper, reveals the best practices of the best runners. Run Like a Champion reveals all the guidelines, tips and tricks, workouts, mental training, and nutritional practices that Olympic runners use. By making this Olympic approach part of their running, runners of all levels will make their goals achievable from 5K to marathon.

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