Dieting techniques you can learn from Olympic athletes
Despite our best intentions, when it comes to weight loss and healthy habits, we all have our weak moments — those times we always slip up, no matter how determined we are.
Yours might be eating at restaurants, snacking at work or overeating when under stress. How can you combat these “uncomfortable” eating situations?
Well, the Summer Olympics in Rio got me thinking that we can learn a lot from how elite athletes overcome adversity. Almost all world-class athletes practice mental rehearsal. Ever hear the expression “practice makes perfect”? The concept is to rehearse an upcoming event, but not on the field — in your mind.
“You’re basically using imagery to trick your brain into having an experience you didn’t actually have,” says Shane Murphy, a professor of psychology at Western Connecticut State University and former sports psychologist to the U.S. Olympic team.
Skiers imagine each run down the slope, perfectly executing every turn in order to “train” their bodies to do the same when they compete.
“For an athlete it’s like having an instant ‘preplay’ — seeing the event and practicing (including fixing mistakes), all before it happens — to avoid making the big mistakes on the field,” says Jim Afremow, a sports physiologist and author of The Champion’s Comeback: How Great Athletes Recover, Reflect, and Reignite (Rodale, $25.99)
So why not use those same techniques to show yourself what it will feel like to be free of a particular overeating shackle?
You don’t have to physically practice standing in the buffet line at your best friend’s wedding to learn how to turn down fattening food.
Instead, rehearse the scenario in your mind so, rather than eating the triple-layer chocolate supreme cake with ice cream, you can revise the ending.
“We train athletes to anticipate their reaction to negative situations, so they are able to create a positive outcome. For instance, a skater falling in mid-session, a soccer player playing in inclement weather or a sprinter competing against a world record holder — the athlete needs to know how he is going to respond in advance. The same applies to avoiding potential diet disasters,” Murphy says.
“Athletes (and non-athletes) are faced with uncomfortable issues, and in order to break away from the anticipated fear or anxiety of an event, you need to build confidence,” says Kay Porter, a sports psychologist in Eugene, Ore.
And what builds that confidence? The experience of doing it right. Mental rehearsal helps athletes overcome performance anxiety.
For example, say the holidays make you anxious. You already know what to expect next Thanksgiving, so you can mentally rehearse saying no to the stuffing, gravy and candied sweet potatoes. See your plate filled with plain turkey and other, less fattening, “trimmings.”
As Louis Pasteur said: “Chance favors the prepared mind.”
Developing your own mental rehearsal
- Identify the occasion: Choose an eating situation you find difficult, whether it’s unconscious eating, traveling, special occasions (weddings, family dinners), dining out or a midnight snack attack. Develop a rough sketch of how you’d like to change your behavior in that scenario — include the thoughts, emotions and actions you want in your “ideal” version.
- Brainstorm: Murphy recommends brainstorming all the negative events that could occur within that situation. If you have difficulty sticking to your diet when you’re going out to dinner, come up with all the possible complications you may encounter: the great bread, the stupendous blue cheese dressing or the fabulous creme brulee. Picture what your friends might say if you avoided those diet disasters. And don’t forget to think about all the positive outcomes — that’s the key, reminds Murphy.
- Add detail: Be specific. Don’t spare a thought, no matter how insignificant it might seem.
- Create the script: Come up with a step-by-step description of exactly what your ideal experience would be. Make sure to include how you would react to all the possible negative scenarios, creating positive outcomes for each.
- Give it life: Once you have the general script down, go back to make the experience really come alive. “See, feel, hear and smell it. Make it as lifelike as possible — imagine it in 3-D,” Murphy says.
- Make it automatic: Afremow recommends you rehearse your imagery often, including the night before the situation or event and even just before it begins, to keep it fresh. If you’ve always ordered dessert at a restaurant, you do it unconsciously, because it’s a habit. But if you rehearse a different outcome — for instance, ordering fruit, coffee or no dessert at all — you will create a new “automatic” response to the dessert menu. The details should be as familiar to you as the words to your favorite song.
- Revise and repair: After the event, no matter what the outcome, revise your imagery and try to repair any mistakes or setbacks.