Can a mantra make you run faster? This Olympic champion has no doubts.
This is a story about Courtney Frerichs who made one of the surprise appearances at the Tokyo Olympics. But actually it’s a story about mantras, because who Frerichs is and what she has achieved this summer is all about the words she has been repeating for years.
We are not talking about mantras in the old sense, the chants (“Om”), which in modern life are often associated with yoga and meditation practices.
We talk about the words and phrases that Frerichs, 28, uttered thousands of times, both silently and loudly. Words that gave her the confidence to run from the front in the 3,000 meter obstacle race in Tokyo and hold out to the end in order to win the silver medal in a race in which even running nerds hardly gave her a chance on the podium.
“I love these words and phrases because they usually start in practice or in conversation,” Frerichs said of her mantras this week as she rested at her parents’ home in Missouri. “It’s very organic.”
Do mantras really make you faster? Nobody can tell that they make you slower. Who doesn’t like to hear a few words of self-assurance in difficult moments? A 2015 study in the journal Brain and Behavior concluded that subjects who repeated a mantra exhibited decreased brain activity, allowing for increased focus and relaxation, traits that come in handy when you do try to run the race of your life.
And if a runner believes something is going to make her stronger or faster, then it is entirely possible.
Now a few important notes about Frerichs.
She grew up in southwest Missouri, where she divided her time between gymnastics and running in high school. She attended the University of Missouri-Kansas City, which is hardly in Oregon or Arkansas when it comes to running success. She spent her final year at the University of New Mexico helping lead the Lobos to the 2015 NCAA Cross Country Championship.
She won the silver medal at the 2017 World Athletics Championships in obstacle running, but she always seemed to exist in the shadow of Emma Coburn, an American who finished third in the 2016 Olympics and was world steeplechase champion in 2017.
Frerichs said her first contact with mantras came in college in New Mexico, where her trainer, Joe Franklin, kept reminding his athletes that their year-long quest for a championship in 2015 was about the path rather than the goal .
“That was really formative for us,” she says. “We were the favorites, but we never thought about national players. We always thought about the step we were in. “
Franklin often recited four words to the team: “Do not expect anything. Achieve everything. “
Those words were in Frerich’s mind for the first few minutes of the national championship race as the team started slowly but worked together towards victory.
She also had it in mind when she started her professional career in 2016, starting with a chance to qualify for the Rio Olympics. She made it into the team and qualified for the Olympic final in 11th place. It was a solid debut, especially for a 23-year-old, but she left with a nagging feeling that she’d gone too safe instead of running like the race was the last of her life.
The next year as she was preparing for the World Cup, a new quote caught her eye: “Be fearless in finding what sets your soul on fire.”
From that moment on, “fearless” was her mantra. She said it when she started training, when she struggled through them, and when she struggled through races. She found a temporary tattoo with the word “fearless” in a market in Park City, Utah, and slapped it on her wrist.
On race day at the 2017 World Championships in London, she had the plan to ride with the leading group. She followed him and won the silver medal behind Coburn.
In 2018, her trainer Jerry Schumacher kept telling her: “Let yourself go.” To Frerichs that sounded like good advice as well as poetry. It became her next mantra.
The words had crossed her mind on the last lap of a stacked race in Monaco in July this year.
“The words allowed me to relax and drive this lap instead of forcing it and getting really tight,” said Frerichs. She broke the American record and finished her signature event in 9 minutes and 0.85 seconds.
Something strange happened next. Frerichs broke away from the strategies that had started her career.
She struggled with injuries. She stopped seeing the sports psychologist who had helped her believe in herself and became frustrated when her career did not advance on a linear continuum. In 2019 she didn’t have a mantra. At the World Championships, she finished in a disappointing sixth place.
“I started to let myself be driven on the path to perfection by the fear of the pressure to perform,” she said.
When the pandemic wiped out most of the 2020 season and forced the Tokyo Olympics to be postponed, Frerichs began to doubt her place in the sport while battling an Achilles tendon injury.
She decided to go back to what was successful in the past. When she was working with a new therapist, the word “belong” kept coming up in their conversations. It seemed to sum up what Frerichs wanted to feel most, in her life, in her career, and in racing. There was the mantra. And she found some temporary “hearing” tattoos that went right on her wrist so she could see the word anytime.
With every race she lived up to what she wanted to be – a runner who could go to the top of the group and belong there.
At this spring’s Portland Track Festival, Frerichs took the lead with a mile to go, practically taking the same step she would take two months later in Tokyo. She practiced taking the lead and controlling the race.
“You have to be able to make the race what it takes to be successful,” she said.
Sounds like making another mantra. Run with it.