Given the few days since the 2023 BMW Berlin Marathon, a race where Eliud Kipchoge won for the fifth time and Tigst Assefa brought down the women’s record by more than two minutes and, closer to home, Malindi Elmore qualified for the 2024 Paris Olympics, at 43-years-old, we can begin to read the tea leaves and see what all this means to you.
How is this helpful? Because when we see other people reach extraordinary heights, it helps us believe that, in our own way, we can, too. And this isn’t just motivational psychobabble. Like super shoes, pacing, and a proper diet: what we believe can actually impact how we do.
“The Belief Effect is very close to the Placebo Effect which, as a scientist, I work very hard to eliminate but, when I put my coach hat on, I’m not trying to eliminate it: I want to maximize the Belief Effect in a way that’s genuine,” says Trent Stellingwerff, director of Innovation and Research at the Canadian Sport Institute Pacific, and Natasha Wodak and Gabriella Debues-Stafford’s coach. “I’m not going to blow smoke, but we’ve learned athletes working purposefully and positively—believing in themselves—can effects mental performance, which effects the actual, physical performance, probably more than we’ve been led to believe.”
Natasha Wodak broke the Canadian marathon record last year at the BMW Berlin Marathon. Her time surprised her coach, a scientist who works hard to eliminate surprises. He said, “Perhaps I respect the beast that is the marathon maybe more than I should.” What Stellingwerff didn’t account for—after creating the perfect race plan, nutrition, pace and training cycle—was grit. Natasha found something special, something extra—something unaccounted—just like Kipchoge and Assefa did this past weekend. Grit isn’t something that can be purchased in a shoe store and, doping aside, it’s not something created in a lab. The good news, however, is it’s not reserved just for elite athletes. Whether you’re Malindi Elmore or somebody’s cousin attempting their first 10K in high tops, effort is a democratized commodity.
If you believe you can do it—maybe, just maybe—you can.
“Belief is the opposite of something like fear,” says Stellingwerff. “If you prepare yourself optimally, don’t fear the moment. Respect it, but I think it’s very powerful when that respect translates into unwavering belief.”
There’s positive tailwinds in our sport right now, and you see it in everything from the quality of the shoes to wicking T-shirts to the popularity of our events. Marathoning has never been more popular and the half marathons, 10 and 5Ks continue selling out, from Vancouver to Montreal. It’s a good time, leading into another Olympics, when Canadian athletes like Natasha Wodak and Malindi Elmore come ready to compete, not just participate in their events. This same energy is percolating at races across the country—the feeling is one we can all share.
“Too often we’ve discounted the mental performance and sports psychology,” Trent says, and the Belief Effect is knowing you can do anything. It’s working hard in practice and racing wisely, but also not giving up on yourself after taking a hit, and being willing to trudge on. Every race has its moments of breakdowns. That’s when you need to remember Belief. Trent Stellingwerff hasn’t risen to the top of this country’s elite coaching echelon by making false promises. And he believes, more than has ever been scientifically proven (like we just saw in Berlin), an athlete (which you are) always stands the chance to break their own barriers. The Belief Effect might not come in a capsule. But it’s something we can all unlock in our next race.
“I think,” says Dr. Trent Stellingwerff, “It’s good for us all to challenge the perception of norms.”