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L.A. Marathon runners need a mantra. And so do you

L.A. Marathon runners need a mantra. And so do you
Competitors run along Hollywood Boulevard during the 2018 L.A. Marathon. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

When I decided about five months ago to make my 37th marathon — Sunday’s Los Angeles Marathon — one of my fastest, I knew I needed to ramp up my training.

I needed to be run more consistently, incorporate more hill repeats and add regular speed sessions.

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And, just as important, I needed to toughen up mentally.

That called for a new mantra.

And guess what? It turns out my new running mantra is the best addition in years to my marathon training.

Even if you’re not lacing ’em up for Sunday’s L.A. Marathon, a mantra might be something you should try.

We’re all running a race of some sort, even if you don’t own a pair of running shoes. Finding an inner piece of wisdom to hang on to when things are falling apart around you might be just what you’re looking for.

Trust me when I tell you that mantras work. Nobody knows precisely why or how. It sounds like a lot of mental mumbo-jumbo, but from psychologists to exercise physiologists to graybeard marathoners like me, everybody agrees that a strong mind can have as much to do with your marathon performance as powerful legs.

OK, let’s listen to an expert. Sports psychologist and performance coach JoAnn Dahlkoetter won the 1980 San Francisco Marathon and later was a top-ranked triathlete. She is a strong proponent of mantras in her Bay Area clinic and on her website, DrJoAnn.com.

“Words have tremendous power on our minds and can have a huge effect on our athletic performance,” Dahlkoetter says. “We’re always talking to ourselves when we’re interpreting situations, and sometimes we have a lot of negative thoughts.

“Mantras provide us a method for reconstructing our thoughts. It’s kind of like switching the radio station to one that’s more positive.”

In my running life, I have always used mantras to toughen resolve, create rhythm, distract from discomfort, relax and motivate me.

An inspiring mantra reminds me who I am and what I believe I can do.

I can’t offer you a guarantee, but I can offer this:

This will be my fifth L.A. Marathon. In April, I will run my 12th Boston Marathon. In all, I’ve started — and finished — 36 marathons. I have used a mantra in every one of them.

For years, my go-to mantra has been “If it were easy, anyone could do it.” It’s been a reliable one. It reminds me during a long mountain run or a difficult set of mile repeats that this stuff is not a cakewalk. It’s OK for my legs to hurt, or to be short of breath. This is not easy. It’s not for everyone. But I can do it, and I can take pride in doing it well.

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That’s the value of mantras. They sort of put your mind in charge of your body. You’re tired. You’re distracted. You’re feeling blue. You’re on Mile 6 and you’re just not feeling this 20-miler you’ve planned. That’s when you call on your mantra. The idea is to remove the focus from your body aches or your worries and put your mental toughness in charge.

The ideal result is a feeling that, once again, you find that you can do more than you thought you could.

Whatever you like to tell yourself — You’ve got this! Just keep swimming! If it were easy, anyone could do it! — just keep repeating this until you find yourself back in a rhythm. Ideally, you’ll start feeling that surge of mental toughness and physical perseverance. You’ll regain your rhythm and get back on your way.

I choose mantras that I can repeat to the rhythm of my running cadence. That way, the words keep my stride strong as well as bolster my mental state.

Here’s how that works with my latest mantra:

So I’m running along. Left, right. Left, right. 1-2-3-4. Then:

“Are your legs SORE? No. 1-2-3-4.

“Are you out of BREATH? No. 1-2-3-4.

“Are you mentally WEAK? No. 1-2-3-4.”

This has been a great tool for me during some difficult training, particularly when I’m struggling to maintain a fast pace on a speed session. Sometimes I’ve had to answer “Yes” or “a little” when I ask myself if I’m sore or if I’m out of breath. But the act of taking inventory helps me compartmentalize. Yes, I’m a little sore, but I can keep going. Yep, climbing this hill has taken my breath away, but I’ll recover on the downhill.

And remember, the answer to “Are you mentally weak?” is always no!

Mantras work in the gym, in the pool or on a long hill climb on a road bike. Having a good mantra at the ready is kind of like carrying around a Leatherman tool on a camping trip. You’re not sure when you’re going to need it. But when you do, it’s an awesome thing to have.

If for some reason you pick a mantra that you end up not liking, just ditch it and find another. That’s another great thing about mantras. They’re free.

So how do you get a good one?

First off, don’t be like Jeff Goldblum in that classic 1977 film, “Annie Hall,” calling his analyst from a Hollywood party because he forgot his mantra. Choose one you will remember.

Some people like simple and generic, like “Eye of the Tiger” or “Courage” or “When the going gets tough...

But feel free to be creative.

Choose something that speaks to you. You can borrow from a favorite movie or book. I recently borrowed from “Hamilton” (“I am not throwing away my shot.”) It might be something everyone can relate to, or it might be something only you understand.

The important thing is that it focuses you on positive thoughts and empowers you to unleash everything you’ve got.

Through all the training and racing I’ve done in the last 21 years, one thing I’ve learned beyond a shadow of a doubt is that all of us can do more than we thought we could, and all of us can reach places we thought we never would.

It’s a beautiful trip, and a good mantra is a trusty companion.

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