When I run, I often hear voices in my head. Luckily, it’s usually just my own voice, telling me to keep going, especially during the hard last miles of a race.
Sometimes it’s an ongoing conversation with myself, as I bargain with and cajole myself to keep moving forward mile after mile. Other times, though, it’s just a word or phrase, repeated over and over again at key moments when I need them most.
After years of doing this, I found that I’m not alone in this practice; many other runners also do the same thing during their runs and races, and as I’ve learned, there’s even a name for these words and phrases: “mantra.”
Many people have heard of mantras, but few know its origin. It’s a term that was developed in India’s Hindu tradition, meaning “creating transformation.” While it was traditionally used to focus the mind to achieve religious and spiritual development during meditation, it can perform this same service for us during running, helping us get through the task at hand.
Elite runners have shared their mantras with us mortals. Olympic medalist and marathon champion Deena Kastor is said to have thought “Define Yourself” as she raced, and ultramarathon legend Scott Jurek recalls that he reminded himself “This Is What You Came For” during a record breaking run.
Like many runners, I have several mantras that I pull out as the need arises. One favorite is “Forward Motion,” which reminds me that as long as I keep moving towards the finish line, I’ll eventually get there.
Another phrase, reserved especially for key races, is “You’ve Worked For This Moment,” which reminds me to remember all the effort I’ve put into training, and how failing to give my best on race day would put all of that hard work to waste.
Sports psychologists say that mantras in general should be short, positive statements that help instruct and motivate you to give your best. They could be as simple as a reminder to Run Strong, Attack The Hill, Breathe Easy, or Hold Your Pace.
All this can be very helpful, and we should welcome any advice on how to develop mantras of our own. Still, I sometimes find myself creating different kinds of mantras. These mantras are less about creating my own phrases and catchwords, and more about taking lessons from the environment around me. I call them “found mantras.”
Traffic signs are a surprisingly good source of found motivation, but perhaps in a somewhat surprising way. Running up a hill in Rossyln, Virginia, I see a sign at the top that instructs drivers to yield; I take that sign as a personal challenge, and I find myself answering the sign, telling it that I will not yield. Stop signs demand a similar response, triggering the thought “I will not stop!”
Speed limit signs trigger a different reaction. When I see a road sign warning of a 25 mile per hour limit, I think how optimistic it is of the sign to think that it needs to warn me not to exceed that speed. I often feel the need to try to speed up and try to live up that expectation as best I could.
Other mantras are less about motivation, and more about general life lessons. A small metal tag I once saw laying in the street had the inscription “Record and Detach,” and though that referred just to the model number listed below, I took it as a good approach to handling any unavoidable setbacks or unsolvable problems.
My favorite found mantra, though, is one that was foisted on me by a large flashing message board. “Expect Delays,” it warned, and I realized that this is could apply not just to the road ahead, but to life in general.
When looking to create your own mantra, though, the best advice is to just find what you respond best to, and go with something in that vein. Whether its something aggressive like the Conan The Barbarian catchphrase “Crush your enemies” or a milder Stuart Smalley affirmation “Doggone it, you’re good enough,” go with whatever works, and don’t worry what other people may think about it. After all, with any luck, there’s no one in your head to hear it but you.