By Sheila Monaghan, SELF
Here's the thing about athletes. They think about their bodies differently than the average gymgoer; they work out, get motivated and define goals -- all differently. And their way is highly effective. You don't need a sponsorship or superior genes to adopt this mindset and achieve the body results you want.
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.
But practice small.
Say you're Tom Brady -- we know, you'd rather be Gisele, but play along. 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. Gymgoers 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.
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.
Okay, 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.
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.
You bet your ass Hope Solo has pictured herself making a diving save to win the World Cup on a penalty kick in OT. Athletes fantasize about having a stellar performance in future workouts or games, and those daydreams affect their reality. According to a study in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, hockey, track and field, and volleyball athletes who envisioned themselves playing their sport with confidence and control also exhibited the most mental toughness -- meaning they didn't crumble under pressure or give up if a competition got tough. Take five minutes a day outside the gym to imagine yourself overcoming an obstacle in your workout. "Picture yourself pushing a certain weight on a bench-press, but also feel your chest muscles engage, your core tighten as you push, and hear the sound of the bar as you put it back on the rack," says study coauthor Krista Chandler, Ph.D., professor of human kinetics at the University of Windsor in Ontario. "Imagery is not merely visual; it engages all of the senses. And when we imagine something, we create the neural pathway similar to that created if we were to physically execute the behavior." For Isaković, that means prepping for a punishing swim interval by imagining herself as light as a feather on the surface of the water and ready to fly over it. Pinpoint and mentally play out the ideal scenario for your workout.
And talk to yourself.
For athletes, it's a package deal: amazing bodies, voices in their heads. A Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise study found that cyclists who repeat pump-up phrases like "you're a winner," "feeling good" and "dig deep" during a hard workout increased their time to exhaustion by 18 percent -- meaning they were able to bust their butts almost a fifth longer than those who didn't talk themselves up, according to study author Samuele Marcora, Ph.D., professor of sport and exercise sciences at the University of Kent in England. When Spin class starts to wear you down, instead of thinking, Gah, when is this over? or I can't go any further, go into cheerlead mode. "If you mentally tell yourself, I've got this, your body will respond," says Isaković. "I happen to love quotes, so I'll find one to think on each week, and when I'm in that moment of pain, I repeat it in my head over and over." The fitspo quote that got major love on SELF's Pinterest boards: "It's not who you are that holds you back. It's who you think you're not."
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An ice queen misses a triple lutz and no doubt she's scrutinizing that jump six ways to Sunday in slow-mo to pinpoint exactly where she went wrong. "Pros constantly evaluate themselves," says Epstein. "After every set or drill, or after they play a game, they self-assess the way a coach would." That appraisal helps determine what's going right or wrong, what you need to focus and practice on and how to improve, Epstein adds. For you, that critique can be as simple as training in front of a mirror to fine-tune your form. Are you running on the treadmill with raised shoulders? Lower 'em. Are you lunging with your knee too far over your ankle? Line up those joints. It's also not a bad idea to hire a personal trainer, run coach, pilates instructor -- whatever your workout bag -- for some expert guidance, even if it's for one session. A tiny technique tweak could be all that's standing between you and greatness.
You do you.
The best athletes are narcissists -- they obsess over themselves, not the competition. "Elites are confident enough that their own bodies are unique, and they don't have to look to others to see what to do," says Epstein. Take Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake, the two fastest 200-meter sprinters in the world, who train together for their sport. "Bolt definitely does not work out as hard or as long as Blake, but that's because he understands his body and his mind enough to know that he doesn't tolerate as big a training load as Blake does. You can be sure Usain Bolt is not thinking about other people during his workouts." Which is exactly why you should worry about numero uno -- not the random girl next to you in barre class or running one treadmill over (admit it -- you've looked at her speed and thought, I've gotta match that). What if she isn't pushing herself as hard as you could? What if she lets up halfway through and that makes you want to quit? If you only make it a competition with yourself, you'll always win. And while, yes, it's true that most athletes want to trounce their opponents, their main motivation to exercise is intrinsic. "Remind yourself, Am I a spectator or the one working out?" Afremow suggests. Because you didn't show up to sweat, to work your butt off, to push yourself for her. You're working out to be your best.