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You might be a better athlete than you think

I was terrible at running; I knew it. I blamed the hurdles. In sixth grade, everyone had to do them for physical education. Even me.

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“Even me?” I asked my P.E. teacher, to no avail or sympathy. I was active, but jumping was out of the realm of my body’s comfort level. I’d go to jump and find myself a few measly inches off the ground, then a heavy landing. No big deal, until I had to do a hurdle. The day came, and I hurdled over the first obstacle by the grace of sheer terror, only to crash directly into the next hurdle, shins first. This experience became intertwined with running, and I started telling myself a story: I am bad at running. Even when, in my 8th grade Olympics, I won the dash I was forced to participate in, I immediately brushed it off as a fluke, because I was bad at running. In my twenties, I tried again. I was ill with a then undiagnosed disease, and deep fatigue was my constant companion. But I knew exercise would help, so I decided to try to run in the middle of a hot, sunny day during a time when I had little physical strength. Predictably, I felt awful, and there was no running for the next fifteen years.

Once I turned 40, I grew bored of my exercise routine. I wanted a new physical activity that didn’t cost any money. Running was the obvious answer. It was free, outside my doorstep, and I could go for however long I wanted. With low expectations, I pulled on my tennis shoes and took off (this time in the early evening) in a light jog instead of a mad dash, and I let myself take breaks whenever I felt overwhelmed. By the time I got home, I was hooked. Kate Allgood is a sport psychological consultant and the founder of Quantam Performance, an organization that creates custom programs for athletes to be as successful as possible. Allgood told me, “I have seen many times an athlete who believes [that] they will play poorly or that they are out of shape, do just that. Our minds set our limits.” On the other hand, she cautions that “expectations can also be dangerous even when looked at in a positive way. Many times I have worked with athletes who expect things to look a certain way, and then when there is a slight difference in reality, they get down on themselves, get anxious, worry, get angry, and their performance suffers as a consequence because their confidence starts to falter.” Nico Moreno, a wellness coach who writes about the crucial link between expectation, mindset, and physical ability, believes that practicing a positive expectation leads to better results: “Goal-setting, visualization, and crafting that perfect mindset all take serious work,” he writes, and this is achieved through repetition. Take ten minutes a day, he promises, to lock-in your positive attitude with an ‘anchor’, like a song or an image, and pump yourself up. Listen to your song or look at your image a few times a day and you’ll change your expectations of yourself.

I did this without meaning to, simply by adjusting my expectations, and allowing myself room to be a slow runner. I frequently visualized myself running and feeling happy, and I talked about running in a positive way to my friends. Soon, I began feeling accomplished before I’d even hit the road. And I didn’t even know about the study that showed slow runners live longer. A study from the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport shows a direct relationship between expectation and physical ability, looking specifically at the effect of a negative mental state on running. The study concluded, “[F]indings lend support to the notion that mood and thoughts about performance are significantly associated,” noting that fatigue and tension were increased when running while depressed. We know that exercise is a great way to fight depression, so it’s a positive cycle: the more you do, the better you’ll feel, and the better you will perform. This was definitely true for me. After a couple of months, I was able to run almost two miles without stopping, quite a change from my humble beginning where I was barely making one mile at a snail’s pace. The tiny improvements bolstered my confidence that I could be a runner, and the more confident I felt, the better my body responded. I eventually worked my way to a five-mile run without stopping and have stuck with it, steady and happy. My expectations had been exceeded, my story had changed: I was good at running.

Read more: How to get motivated to exercise ... for the rest of your life

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