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Mental Training

How Self-Talk Can Turn You Into a Lifelong Runner

In the latest Performance Corner, expert strength running coach Jason Fitzgerald explains how positive self-talk can be ripe opportunities for cultivating a sustainable running practice. 

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If you’re anything like me, you love running and want to continue this sport for as long as possible. If I’m physically and mentally capable of running, that’s what I plan on doing for the rest of my life.

A main goal of the Performance Corner column is to explore how to make our training more impactful. That means focusing on training habits that improve our performances, keep us healthy, and extend our longevity in the sport.

I’ve always been curious about the differences between runners who quit immediately, as soon as they don’t have a big race on the schedule, or don’t have a team to run for, compared to runners who consistently continue the running habit for decades.

While I’m still working to figure out the underlying reasons for this, I’ve realized that an important piece of the puzzle is how runners talk to themselves. Self-talk.

First recognized during my college track days, and later to be confirmed through coaching adults for the last 11 years, self-talk forms an integral pillar of our identity. Our self-talk either reinforces or diminishes the ways in which we think about ourselves as runners, and how we think of ourselves as runners has a lasting impact on our ability to run consistently for years and even decades.

What is Self-Talk?

Self-talk is the story that you tell yourself about who you are. It helps form your personal ideas about your personality, strengths, weaknesses, habits, and mindsets. This internal conversation is always running in the background, affirming that you did a good job, that you came up short, that you’re proud (or ashamed) of something you did, or to encourage (or dissuade) you from doing something.

When you’re deep into a long run and that little voice in your head tells you that you’re feeling good and can finish strong, that’s an example of positive self-talk, something that can build mental toughness.

An example of negative self-talk is when, during a workout, that same voice tells you the workout is too difficult, that you can’t make it through and you should quit.

RELATED: How Self-Talk May Influence Long-Term Adaptation

Self-talk can come from your best cheerleader. It can spread positivity, encourage you to experience more discomfort, and expect more from yourself. But it can also wreak havoc on your self-confidence by convincing you that you’re not good enough, not strong enough, or not capable enough to be the runner you know you can be.

In the short-term, negative self-talk makes you stay in bed when the alarm goes off, instead of starting your morning run. It makes you quit the workout early and convinces you that you’ll never reach your biggest goals. In the long-term, negative self-talk forces you to think less of yourself as a runner. It rewires your brain to have a poor self-image, lower self-efficacy, and reduces your ability to rebound from adversities like injury, illness, or a bad race.

Bottom line? For us to have longevity in the sport, we must speak kindly to ourselves and foster a mindset of support.

Build Yourself Up

Because self-talk will be with us all our lives, there’s no use in trying to eliminate all self-talk. If we’re to run for decades, our self-talk must improve our enjoyment of the sport. We can harness the way in which we speak to ourselves, so it works to our advantage. There are two ways of accomplishing this goal:

  1. Proactively use positive self-talk to build yourself up
  2. Harness negative self-talk in the right way

Whenever we proactively use positive self-talk, we’re reinforcing our strengths, distracting ourselves from discomfort, and improving our self-image.

 

For those who want to run for the rest of their lives, positive self-talk isn’t just a sports psychology hack. It’s a strategic path to longevity.

 

Perhaps the most effective form of positive self-talk is the use of mantras. Running mantras help keep you positive and can calm anxious thinking during races or hard workouts. Because we can’t entirely avoid the discomfort of hard running, we must prepare beforehand to confront that pain. Mantras give us the psychological tools to do just that. They can be most effective when they’re personal or specific to the demands you’re experiencing. I personally love repeating the word, “relax” during the first 20 miles of a marathon. I need to calm my mind and focus on pacing; this mantra helps me tremendously.

I also like to ask myself, “It’s time to make a decision, what are you going to do?” This question was posed by my first cross country coach, and it helps me see that every performance is essentially a decision. I can decide to run hard, or I can decide to give up – the decision is mine.

I reached out to runners on Instagram to see what mantras work for them. Here are a few favorites:

  • “Smooth is fast.”
  • “Don’t waste it.
  • “You’re stronger than this.”
  • “This is what you’re here for.”
  • “No place I’d rather be.”
  • “May the beast be your enlightenment.”

No matter what mantra you decide for yourself, make it personal, and practice it during training.

Manage Negative Thoughts

If you can’t get rid of negative thoughts, that’s totally normal. Try and use them to your advantage. Channel them against the competition (real or imaginary). Instead of telling yourself that the race is painful, that you’re not going to make it, or that you need to slow down, try offering those thoughts to a competitor (definitely keep them inside your head, though!). Turning anger, fear, or anxiety into friendly competitive energy is a powerful way of using these emotions to your advantage on race day.

RELATED: 5 Science-Backed Mental Tricks For Getting Through The Toughest Races

Without wishing anyone pain, when you feel yourself slipping into negativity, try and turn it around and apply it to a nearby competitor. Tell yourself that they are tired, that they might want to quit. Convince yourself that your competitor is hurting – which is probably true – and that they’re questioning their ability to perform. This act will distract you from your own race-related discomfort and will allow you to be more focused on the task at hand.

Running consistently for decades takes a certain mindset, one that loves the sport, enjoys the struggle, and finds positivity in the training process. Negative self-talk, practiced repeatedly for years, has the potential to cut short your running career and reduce your longevity in the sport. So for those who want to run for the rest of their lives, positive self-talk isn’t just a sports psychology hack. It’s a strategic path to longevity.

 

Jason Fitzgerald is the host of the Strength Running Podcast and the founder of Strength Running. A 2:39 marathoner, he’s coached thousands of runners to faster finishing times and fewer injuries with his results-oriented coaching philosophy. Follow him on Instagram or YouTube. Read more from his column here