Olympian Deena Kastor Discusses the Power of Positive Thinking

Photo Credit: Jeremy Teicher

In July, Deena Kastor will drive from her home in Mammoth Lakes, California to Alamosa, Colorado to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first U.S. Olympic marathon trials. Kastor will be alongside other notable runners including Frank Shorter, Billy Mills, Amby Burfoot and Hal Higdon.

But the trip has a secondary purpose that’s just as significant to her—she’s coming home to the town where she blossomed as a professional runner. Kastor moved to Alamosa (elevation 7,500 feet) after college to be coached by Joe Vigil. And, as described in Kastor’s recent book Let Your Mind Run, the small mountain town is the place where Kastor discovered the power of positive thinking that eventually led her to an Olympic bronze and the American record in the marathon.

“Talking about optimism or positivity or mindfulness or meditation—all these words that are now kind of new age—can be intimidating,” Kastor says. “In my book, I tried to show it’s really just paying attention to thinking patterns and what thoughts inspire and enhance who we are.” Kastor encourages readers to give attention to good thoughts, a process that, over time, causes negative thoughts to quiet. “That little devil on your shoulder starts to atrophy a little while the angel starts to flex her powers more,” she says, noting that the process gets easier over time with practice.

When it comes to feelings of disappointment, perhaps from hitting the wall in the last miles of a race or falling short of a BQ, Kastor says it’s important to honor those emotions. “That stuff is really good to identify,” she shares. “Disappointment stems from wanting to do better, wanting to be better, and expecting more out of yourself—so get right back to the drawing board and figure out how to become that bigger, stronger version of yourself. Define those feelings in a way that can empower instead of inhibit.”

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Training logs are a great place to record those feelings—and other details about runs that go beyond times and mileage. “Some of my training logs talked about not only what I hit in every quarter for my mile repeats, but what the weather was like, how I slept the night before, how my attitude was at practice and even if I saw a cute puppy at the park,” she remembers. “I know that if I’m seeing a cute puppy at the park, I’m probably in a pretty good place that day.”

A detailed training log can also provide reassurance when you need it most: right before a race. Runners often psych themselves out during the taper period—they feel out of shape, for example, or wonder why their legs feel heavy. When Kastor experiences these feelings, she looks back over her training log and sees that—week after week—she put in the work that will allow her to succeed in the race.

“The night before the race, I usually go through my training log and think of three reasons why I should succeed the next day, and I memorize them,” she shares. “And in this attempt of memorizing them, my little panic attack begins to mellow out and drift away. Again, it’s giving attention to the right things that will help you get to your goal.”

For the past three years, Kastor’s main goal was to finish Let Your Mind Run. “I didn’t want to write a memoir so that people could learn more about me,” she says. “I really wanted to write a memoir so that people could discover more of themselves; that was my motivation the whole time.”

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Since the book was released on April 10, the response has been overwhelmingly positive—and not just among runners. “What has been the most rewarding has been the emails I’ve gotten from people who happen to be going through some tough times,” she says. “The book isn’t just about running, the book is about how we can be advocates for ourselves just by being a little more disciplined in our thinking.”

Kastor is quick to point out that her optimistic approach is backed by science. “When we’re frustrated or uptight or angry or sad, our bodies have tension and stress hormones that make it very difficult to operate optimally,” she explains. “A better attitude has a direct effect on physical health.” Looking back on her own career, it wasn’t until she began practicing positivity and self-empowerment that she started to flow as a runner.

“Runners take great care in finding coaches or programs to follow for all of the physical work, but I feel the only way to maximize our physical potential is by using our minds, which are our greatest assets,” she says. “Our minds are our best cheerleaders, and only when we’re doing our own cheerleading and when the support is coming from within ourselves can we really maximize our physical capabilities.”

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