I ran a marathon, once upon a time. (If you could call what I did “running.” It took me nearly five hours—you do the math.) Still, I did it: laced up my New Balances, pounded the pavement through five months of training, and then went ahead and finished the whole 26.2. Some folks, including my podiatrist (bunions), didn't think I could do it. But as sports psychologists I talked to told me, physical feats are often more about mind than matter. Just in time for those New Year's resolutions, here are five evidence-based tips for upping your running game—or any physical activity you choose.

#1 Set a super clear goal. Edwin Locke and Gary Latham, leaders in goal-setting theory in the 1990s, showed that the more specific your goal, the better you will perform. Hundreds of subsequent studies have confirmed this finding as gospel. So instead of aiming to be a “better runner,” the first thing you are going to want to do is pinpoint a result: add a mile to your longest distance, shave a minute off your most recent race time, or simply get out and do it a certain number of times a week.

#2 Learn to be okay with pain. “Embrace the suck”—a phrase borrowed from soldiers of Operation Iraqi Freedom—has become a useful running mantra of Cindra Kamphoff, director of the Center for Sport and Performance Psychology at Minnesota State University, Mankato, who has completed 11 marathons herself. Running doesn't always feel good, especially when you're just starting out—but if you plan for that, you can prepare yourself to withstand it, she says. Jack Lesyk, director of the Ohio Center for Sport Psychology in Beachwood, agrees: “My first run was a quarter of a mile, and when I finished I thought I would have a heart attack. But I was determined to exceed that distance the following day and the day after that.”

#3 Get competitive. Marketing expert Gavin Kilduff of New York University looked at six years of racing data and interviewed runners about their “rivals”—people of similar age and ability with whom they raced often and felt competitive toward. They found that people ran harder and faster when racing against their rivals. This reminds me of a trick I learned from my dad, one that helped get me through mile 23 when my hips felt as if they were about to burst into flame: Pick out someone a few yards ahead of you and picture yourself throwing a lasso around her waist and reeling her in bit by bit until you catch up and eventually pass her. Then … it's on to the next one.

#4 Talk to yourself. Positive self-talk helped Kamphoff win the Omaha marathon in 2012. “I was in a really negative place for much of the race, but for the last four miles I told myself over and over, ‘I'm confident, strong and prepared,’” she says. Those last miles were her fastest of the day, and she also set a personal time record. An oft-cited meta-analysis published in 2011 in Perspectives on Psychological Science found that motivational self-talk boosted athletes' confidence and got them more excited to compete. Lesyk has his own version, one that's helped him run for 30 years and 14 marathons: “I am runner. I run fast and strong. With each and every step, I become a stronger and stronger person.”

#5 Picture it. The idea of closing your eyes and picturing your way into a win sounds a little woo-woo, but imagery is a long-standing tool in elite athletics. When you vividly imagine yourself doing something before you do it, you're in essence programming your mind to think you can, Kamphoff says. “There are lots of different ways to do it, but sometimes I'll have my clients picture a highlight reel of themselves—three to five times when they've experienced success in the past—and vividly imagine those things for 10 to 20 seconds at a time. Then do that four or five times,” she says.

The great thing about all these strategies is that they don't have to apply to just running. One marathon was plenty for me, but I do want to become a better exerciser. After all, Zumba does nothing for your heart if you don't even make it to the gym. Excuse me while I close my eyes and picture myself … walking out the door for class. Baby steps!