1. Dream HUGE You’ve heard of hurdler, wait, bobsledder Lolo Jones, right? She made it to the Olympics but tripped over a hurdle in 2008, failed to medal in track in 2012, then turned up at Sochi on the bobsled team. This is a woman who will change sports in the name of gold. Jocks have pie-in-the-sky ambitions that can’t be crushed. And while you may have no illusions of stepping onto a podium, setting loftier diet and exercise goals can help you succeed. In a New England Journal of Medicine study, people who set out to reach a self-described dream weight lost more pounds than those who aimed for a number they defined as acceptable. The theory? It’s tough to get (and stay) excited about a lackluster achievement. “When the result is modest, it can undermine the optimism and motivation it requires to achieve that result,” says study author Krista Casazza, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition Sciences at the University of Alabama in Birmingham. What that means for you? Even if you’re just on ramping at CrossFit, make the end game deadlifting twice your weight. Chances are, you’ll actually do it.
2. But practice small Say you’re Tom Brady. Your sights are set on the Super Bowl, but there are more than a few games to win beforehand. While the long-term objective doesn’t go away, you have to move the needle every day. “Pro football players call it chopping stone,” says David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance. “You’re chipping away at something over time with small goals instead of solely thinking about the big win at the end.” For Brady and the New England Patriots, that means beating their Week 1 opponent, then projecting to next Sunday’s game and the following Monday-night matchup. Each victory builds upon the next, helping the team gain momentum. Gym goers have a different mind-set. They see a workout as finite: “Yay, I survived that 30/60/90 class. I’m done.” Connect your dots. Realize that today’s intervals will prep you to crush tomorrow’s long run, and both will carry you across that half-marathon finish line with a PR—it’s all a process.
3. Be an athlete 24/7 If you put her in a pair of Choos and hand her a glass of Champagne, Maria Sharapova doesn’t suddenly stop being a four-time grand slam champion. “My swim coach in college told us we are athletes 24 hours a day and that as athletes, every choice—from what to eat to when to go to bed to whether we stretch and foam-roll—affects our daily performance and the final outcome,” says Sara Isaković, a 2008 Olympic silver medalist in the women’s 200-meter freestyle swim and a psychiatry research assistant at the University of California in San Diego.
OK, your final outcome isn’t Wimbledon, but your choices matter, too. It’s midnight. You’re tempted to cue up that sixth episode of Orange Is the New Black. Ask yourself: What would Sharapova do? Probably go the hell to bed so she could wake up for 5:45 a.m. boot camp. “Identifying yourself as an athlete has a way of revealing bad habits that could be holding you back,” says Jim Afremow, Ph.D., author of The Champion’s Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train, and Thrive. And somehow it’s less naggy and annoying to pass up a second glass of wine or skip the sugary dessert when you frame it as a workout saboteur versus a no-no.
4. Really feel the burn Athletes get comfortable being uncomfortable. They anticipate the pain of a bonkers workout and embrace the fact that it’s going to suck at points. Very different from us regular folks who freak out or shut down at any sign of exercise unpleasantness. “A lot of people panic when they experience any discomfort in their bodies,” says Epstein. “Elite athletes do the exact opposite—they program themselves not to be rattled. You can see that on pain-threshold tests of elites; they become accustomed to the pain, and even while their bodies are in distress, their minds aren’t. You can learn to do that just as you do any other part of training.” How? You don’t fear the hurt. Instead of backing off when breathlessness takes hold during a sprint, tell yourself, Relax. I know I’m going to be fine. This is not too hard for me, and I can do this. Then take your speed up one notch. Your body already knows it can handle the challenge. You’ve just got to prove it to your brain.
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