The mindset that helped a marathon runner become one of the best in the country in just 4 years: ‘Working harder isn’t necessarily better’

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This story is part of the Top of the Game series, where CNBC Make It explores the habits, routines and mindsets that elite athletes use to achieve peak performance and success.

Sometimes it takes a while before you know what’s best for you.

Nell Rojas, one of the top marathoners in the US, knows that feeling well: The 34-year-old only started marathon running four years ago.

A successful college steeplechase runner, Rojas spent most of her twenties as a running coach in Boulder, Colorado, where she was born and raised. She competed in triathlons and says she started running marathons on the advice of her father and coach, former top distance runner, Rick Rojas. “Go out for a jog,” she recalls saying in 2018. “See if you like it.”

Rojas promptly ran 26.2 miles in 2 hours 31 minutes, finishing 7th at the 2018 California International Marathon. The result made her “jaw open,” she says.

“Of course, because my dad was my biggest fan, he thought, you’re going to make the Olympic team,” Rojas tells CNBC Make It. “And I was like, okay, take it easy.”

Last year she finished best American at the Boston Marathon. She repeated the feat earlier this year as she set a personal best of 2 hours, 25 minutes and 57 seconds – and now has her sights set on the U.S. Olympic trials in 2024.

Here, Rojas discusses how an egoless mindset helps her to constantly improve, why she thinks most people think the wrong way about mental toughness, and how she organizes her brain around an “absence of negativity.”

How Rojas takes her ego ‘out of the way’ to constantly improve

I think the most important thing is to be realistic. It’s like saying, “I never cook. I’m going to be a great cook.” How can you be a good cook if you never practice or know nothing about it?

I take my ego out of the way and approach things realistically, understanding that the end result honestly doesn’t matter. We are all human. If we fail, we fail. There will be more options in the future.

This year, leading up to the Boston Marathon, my quads were pretty beat up. And my training plan actually went to s—. But I was like, “I’m going to show up on the line. I’m going to be logical about this. I’m going to do my best and run my own race.”

You have to take your ego away. Make sure you do what suits you. And then go from there. When you have those prospects, you keep going, and as long as you go, you get better.

Why she thinks most people approach mental toughness the wrong way?

I think the “no pain, no gain” mentality is all wrong.

Working harder is not necessarily better. It’s all about training really smart. If you’re not having a good day, just reprogram the workout for something productive.

With the amateur age group athletes I coach, the only major difference [from elite runners] is that if I have a bad workout because I run a lot, I understand: it’s because, yeah, I was really, really tired today. I take it for what it is and move on.

Instead, age group [runners] will put a lot of emotion into it. They want to give up or work way too hard. Many people want to start from scratch, skip all the steps and have all the success in the next four months. My job is to manage those expectations.

How she organizes her mindset around an ‘absence of negativity’

I think [the key to my mindset is] an absence of negativity. It’s not natural for me to be a super positive person. But I’m really good at not being negative, which is more important.

Negative thoughts arise during a competition or during training. Something doesn’t go exactly as planned. Basically every race I’m like, “I’m definitely going to stop. I’m not going to finish this race in any way.”

But I’m not emotional about it. I know exactly why my body is telling me this, and I’ve been through this before. So I just keep running. As long as you recognize those thoughts, you can silence them.

[You learn] how to deal with something you’re afraid of, or don’t want to do: Do ​​it anyway. Get through it and do it right. We come across those things like every day in everyday life, right? We say, “I’m really scared to do this.”

For me and all my athletes, we have to endure at least two workouts a week that scares us. I think that’s a huge skill.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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