Athletes and psychologists use fitness mantras to achieve their goals – and you should too

Struggling with motivation? Developing your own fitness mantra may be the most powerful tool you have at your disposal, as Strong Women editor Miranda Larbi knows.

If there’s one thing lots of people are snobby about, it’s mantras. Thanks to hun culture, “Live, laugh, love” might be enjoying a kind of ironic cool, but many of us see fitness mantras as pretty lame. And that’s fair, when you think back to the kinds of phrases many of us used to abide by back in 2017: “Summer bodies are built in the winter”, “Go hard or go home”, “No pain, no gain”. Those phrases summed up our messed-up, diet-culture-infected attitudes towards happiness, body image and motivation.

But mantras – when used properly – really can work. In fact, my own fitness journey changed for good when I started using a simple one.

A few years ago, I was asked to run the London Marathon. Having only run one 10K before, I now had 12 weeks to quadruple my distance. I started training hard and quickly found myself spiralling into anxiety so intense, I felt physically sick while running. Desperate for help, I went to a sports hypnotherapist who, among other things, asked me to think about the following phrase when I headed out on a run: I am a trainee runner. When things felt hard, he told me to say it out loud; when I was tired, I was to concentrate on those five words.  

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The mantra changed my life. Running that marathon changed my relationship with my body and started a love affair with running that’s transported me to new countries, helped me to explore my home city and make new friends. That mantra helped me to run that marathon and countless races since.

“I am a trainee runner”, for me, was such an effective phrase because it allowed me to accept that even when you try your best, things can go wrong. Trainees take on traineeships to learn on the job – things are bound to go haywire and when they do, you can’t be blamed because that’s what you’re there for. And it’s up to me to decide when my traineeship stops and I graduate to become a ‘real’ runner. 

I’m about to start training for my fifth marathon and when the going gets tough, I’ll still be calling myself a trainee runner. That phrase will get me through the tough training runs, the hard gym sessions and ultimately (I hope) to the finish line.

But don’t just take my word for it – experts also believe that mantras can help us to reach our fitness goals. 

Repeating a mantra that means something to you as you get ready, when things feel hard or when you need that extra push can make all the difference.

Dr Josephine Perry is a sports psychologist and author of The Ten Pillars of Success. Her work is all about helping athletes get into the right frame of mind for winning and achieving – and she says that she’s a huge believer in mantras.

“Mantras are my favourite things!” she enthuses. “We should use them in all parts of life.

“A mantra can be effective because it helps you keep the important things front of mind. I tend to suggest we have two: one instructional and one motivational.”

Instructional mantras

Dr Perry says that these are the kinds of statements a coach might yell at you when you’re feeling tired and start to lose good form. “It’s the thing that reminds your body how to hold best technique,” she explains. For a runner, that might be “Lift your feet” (it’s all too easy to start dragging your feet when you’re tired) or “Push down through the heels” when coming to the end of a heavy deadlift set. 

Motivational mantras

“The motivational one should be attached to your why. Why do you exercise? What does it mean to you?” Dr Perry says.

Quoting from her book, she recalls running a workshop for a triathlon club that focused on the benefits of self-talk for athletes at the start of her career. The group discussed research that affirmed the benefits of having a mantra, but Dr Perry didn’t have any specific examples to share. That’s when one attendee stuck up his hand and asked if the thing he told himself in races would count as a mantra.

About five years earlier, the man had been told by this GP that unless he changed his unhealthy ways, he’d be facing an early death. “That GP visit was the encouragement he needed. He started eating more healthily, began to exercise and eventually found triathlon. His first race was a daunting experience – he survived the swim and the bike ride, but was struggling on the 5K run,” Dr Perry recalls. 

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“Then he saw his dad by the side of the course, cheering him on. As he ran past, he heard his dad say to the spectator next to him, ‘That’s my son’. The pride in his dad’s voice lifted him towards the finish line. In every race after that, whenever he was struggling, he repeated ‘That’s my son’ to himself, to remind him of how his changed lifestyle had made his dad proud. 

“He was living his purpose and the use of his mantra helped him stick with it. There is no better example of a mantra – it was emotive, short, positive and powerful.” 

How to create your own fitness mantra

The tricky thing with a good mantra is, as the story above illustrates, you can’t borrow someone else’s. The power of a mantra comes from the fact that it’s personal to you and your situation. My trainee runner mantra is so effective because I personally struggle with the pressure to perform (mostly because I hate ‘losing’, but also because fitness is my job, so there’s an expectation that I should be fit and fast). That athlete above probably has a relationship with his dad that’s entirely different to the one you or I have with ours.

Find your personal ‘why’

To find your own mantra, Dr Perry recommends identifying something personal that resonates deeply. “Whenever you come up against an obstacle, repeating the phrase can help you remain focused. If you struggle to come up with one, think about what someone you trust might say to you in that moment.” 

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Be as emotional as possible

If you can, she suggests getting as emotional as possible. “Make it tug on your heartstrings – a phrase that gives you a bit of a lump in your throat is the one that will work best. If you can, find something as powerful as the mantra of our friend in his triathlon that matches your purpose and is full of emotion, and you will have a brilliant motivational tool that will help keep you on track.” 

Images: Getty

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