A mantra is a word or phrase you say to yourself to boost your flagging spirits when you need encouragement. Originally formulated in Hinduism or Buddhism to aid concentration during meditation, mantras are now commonly encouraged for regular folks as a psychological tool, and they can be very powerful aids to performance, especially during near the end of a long race. In fact, your race plan should include a specific mantra that you can pull out of your metaphorical bag of race tricks when you need it most.

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Kim Dawson is a professor of sports psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont. and consults with a variety of sports organizations on the psychological side of competition. Here’s what she told us about how to formulate the perfect race mantra:

First, why is a mantra even useful? Dawson describes the mantra’s three important functions:

  • to motivate you when your motivation is flagging
  • to help you stay focussed and to quiet the mind
  • to issue a directive or task

“First, I have a conversation with the athlete and I ask them, what is the number one thing that will help you be successful?” Dawson points out that people are motivated by very specific things, and those things are different for everyone. Moreover, it might be different for each run.

“It has to be meaningful to the individual,” says Dawson, and if it’s a client she has been working with, the idea is that the mantra encapsulates all the aspects of the mental game that they have been working on together.

Silhouette of an exhausted sportsman at sunset

Some ideas for mantras:

  • “Strong body, calm mind”
  • “Fit and fast”
  • “Run strong”
  • “Run brave”
  • “Just keep running”

Most experts recommend saying the mantra out loud to yourself, but if you feel self-conscious, you can whisper it. (There is power in hearing the words and moving your lips, but you can be as discreet as you need to be if you’re prone to embarrassment.)

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Dawson strongly recommends that you formulate a mantra before the race starts, rather than waiting until the moment you need it. Get to know the segments of the race that give you the most trouble–it might be typically be 30-35K in the marathon, or it might those final two-point-two kilometres after 40K. Or it might be 21-25K, when you’re only half done and running another half-marathon seems impossible. A mantra can be a significant part of your plan B, if things really start to fall apart.

Dawson also suggests talking to other runners and getting feedback about how they create and use mantras.

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