While writing part 2 of the Best Personal Growth Books I Read in 2019 series, I realized this book needs a review on its own. Or not a review, really. A song of praise. This is a must-read for every runner (or other sports fanatics), but contains many ever so important universal truths as well. Truths about the power of the mind, the power of positivity, the power of ritual and habit, and the power of faith and belief.
The author, Deena Kastor, is an American, Olympic runner who has held American records for all the distances, from the 5k to the marathon (02:19h!). In this book she narrates the story of her career and explains how she achieved such incredible succes. Which is for an important part, she argues, thanks to her mind.
Besides the wealth of information about training techniques and the incredibly motivational descriptions of races, I love this book most for its focus on everything else besides running. Kastor quit running after her talent did not seem to get her any further. But she got back to it once she realized her mindset and attitude could. It is what I had started to experience in my own running as well: power, energy and ability only get you so far. Your mind will have to do the rest.
Kastor gets back into professional running when she finds herself a new coach. Besides putting into place incredibly INTENSE training schedules (at high altitude, twice a day, with insane weekly mileages), this coach also teaches mindset, positive thinking, lifestyle, attitude, and ritual and habit. With regard to the intensity of the training, Kastor quotes him saying ‘There’s no such thing as overtraining, just underresting.’ The quote made it to my vision board actually. Because it shows that how you live your life outside of running, is just as important as the running itself. Besides, I am a big advocate of SLEEP. And I believe enough sleep will positively affect anything you do during the day. And more so than a few extra hours of work will.
Kastor’s coach soon introduces her to the concept of mindset en positive thinking during running: ‘The mind doesn’t distinguish between fact and fiction. What the mind sees and thinks, the body feels.’ In other words, if you think you can be faster or go further, your body (and therefore your reality) will mirror your thoughts. The book is full of wonderful references to books and research about this topic. I wish I could quote it all.
‘Often we think of confidence as a trait – someone is confident. Confidence, though, is a thinking pattern, a practice of choosing to believe positive statements about yourself and your abilities. Confidence affects not only how we feel but also how the brain acts. When you believe in your goal, and also your ability to achieve it, the systems of the brain fall in line, seeking and then finding proof for your point of view.’
In training and in races, Kastor tries to apply this theory of the mind-body connection. Instead of focusing on sore legs or painful feet, and instead of creating an inner dialogue around being tired and not able to hold up, she actively tries to imagine strength, speed and endurance, telling herself she is strong and fast and that every run will turn her into a better athlete.
‘It took tremendous effort to control those thoughts. My brain easily slipped back into negativity, and I found I had to stay on top of my thinking in the same way I had to remain conscious and diligent about my pace in a workout. […] I told myself: Find a thought that serves you better.’
Kastor gives plenty of examples of such ‘thoughts that serve her better.’ However, it is never about the denial of negative events or situations. You are allowed to worry or fear, or be disappointed, angry or sad. ‘Observe your thoughts with curiosity, rather than judgment.’ And if there happens to be a setback (and she experiences many), it is not about pretending everything is okay. It is about accepting the situation as it is. It is about having faith that the setback served a higher purpose. And it is your responsibility to use the experience for the better moving forward.
‘It’s a matter of trusting that everything is unfolding as it’s supposed to, even if we don’t understand it now. It’s about not resisting or fighting the situation. Who knows, maybe this setback is actually keeping you from peaking too soon.’
Controlling your mindset, thinking positively and having faith are no easy things to do. Just like any other skill, these things need practice. With practice, it gets easier over time. Scientists have proven that practicing positive thinking (through any form of mindfulness) actually rewires the brain. Because of it, the brain creates neurological pathways that make mindset control and positive thinking easier.
‘The more frequently you reinforce positivity in the mind, the more automatic and habitual positive thinking becomes. Over time, positive thoughts start jumping into your head, and your mind becomes an advocate for what you’re trying to accomplish.’
Therefore, Kastor starts practicing the mindset skills she needs for running also in her daily life. She starts taking control of all the external factors that normally influence her mood, trying to make unpleasant activities more pleasant, and fun activities even more enjoyable. ‘I approached the day as a whole, creating a ritual centered on manufacturing pleasure and ease.’ Doing so, she eventually starts enjoying even the most intense training days. Simply by making sure the rest of the day is filled with enjoyable things. She calls this practice ‘creating strategic joy.’
‘Strategic joy is doing something intentionally to foster positive feelings: Wearing a fun running outfit because you feel good in it.’
This book was my first encounter with the effect of mindset on sports. And it could not have come at a better time. At the time I was reading it, I fell on my knee – HARD – and had the opportunity to practice mindset that same night during my first 9k run ever. I do not recommend trying this at home, but I ran through the pain. Focusing only on the thought that I could absolutely do this, that this training would make me stronger, and that it would help heal my knee. Halfway during the run, the pain disappeared completely.
As soon as I hit 9k and stopped running, I could barely put any weight on that knee anymore. It hurt so much. And it continued to hurt for another two weeks. Not during training though. Because that turned out to be the power of thought. ‘Be careful how you are talking to yourself, because you are listening.’
Today, practicing mindset is a fixed part of all my trainings and races. Without the right mindset, I run significantly slower or I am not even able to finish a training properly. So like Kastor, I have started applying mindset control to every part of life – with incredible results. I am happier, more confident, and make more progress towards my goals. I believe this is why people get addicted to running. The benefits for mental health are just unequaled. You simply want to become better and better at the mental aspect of running. I also believe this is why most long distance runners are in their forties (or older!). Learning to control your mind takes TIME. Younger people simply do not (yet) have what it takes to build endurance.
‘Something magical happens when you take control of your thoughts. You realize you are your own creation. Moment to moment, who do you want to be?’
Best sports ánd life advice ever from Nike: just do it.