Performance-Enhancing Thoughts

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Ten years ago, if someone told me to use a mantra to enhance my performance, I would have slowly backed away and maybe deleted their number from my phone. “It’s only a matter of time before they try to sell me on the power of healing crystals and kombucha cleanses,” I would have thought. But in the time since, a lot has changed.

For one, I freaking love kombucha now and would take a bath in it for sure (I may not understand how cleanses work). But more than that, I saw tons of athletes have breakthrough success with mantras and positive self-talk, and I did the research. Simply put, these cognitive strategies work.

Just a week ago, my wife and co-coach Megan used a mantra for the XTERRA National Championships suggested to her by an author and friend, Cindy Kuzma, who heard the phrase from a pacer at a recent race. The phrase? “No deal.” Those two words meant that Megan wouldn’t compromise on the effort when it got tough, which was especially important given some stress and life obstacles from the previous week, plus the high-altitude terrain.

Top marathoner Amy Hastings is attributed with the mantra ‘I breathe out weakness, I breathe in strength.’ When confronted with the discomfort of the final stages of his 2010 American Record in the 24-hour event, Scott Jurek used ‘This is what you came for.’ Right now, I am using ‘You are an articulate superunicorn’

When the race got tough and all Megan wanted to do was slow down and compromise, she repeated the phrase. “No deal,” she thought when the hill got steep. “No deal,” she repeated in the final grind. That night, our game of poker really never got started, but the mantra helped her to a third place performance.

Proof In the Puddin’

Lots of athletes use mantras and positive self-talk. Top marathoner Amy Hastings is attributed with the mantra “I breathe out weakness, I breathe in strength.” When confronted with the discomfort of the final stages of his 2010 American Record in the 24-hour event, Scott Jurek used “This is what you came for.” Right now, I am using “You are an articulate superunicorn” to write this article (I prefer silly self-talk to quiet the self-critical voice in my head). Anecdotally, among athletes we coach, the ones that consistently grow as runners long-term usually have a positive internal monologue.

First, let’s lay down some definitions (that sentence is the love language of professors). A 2013 study in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise defined self-talk as “a multidimensional phenomenon concerned with athletes’ self-addressed verbalizations that can serve both instructional and motivational functions.” Somewhere out there, a professor just opened a bottle of very sexy champagne.

Mantras are a subset of self-talk strategies involving the repetition of a word or phrase, focused primarily on higher-intensity activity when more complex thoughts are not possible. Self-talk can be negative (“I am not a good climber”), neutral (“I am an okay climber”), or positive (“KILIAN JORNET AIN’T GOT CRAP ON MY CLIMBING PROWESS”).

You can probably recognize it intuitively. The next time you are running up a steep hill, think about the voice in your head. Is it a positive, uplifting story? If not, studies show you are leaving performance benefits on the table.

The Deets

A 2011 meta-analysis in the Perspectives on Psychological Science journal found that positive self-talk is effective for performance improvement across 32 studies. A 2013 study in the Medicine & Science in Sport & Exercise journal found one of the mechanisms—a reduction in perceived exertion. In that study, participants used pretty tame mantra-like phrases such as “feeling good” and “push through this” to increase time to exhaustion in cycling by making them feel like they were not pushing as hard. In other words, it’s not just what you are doing that matters, it’s how you feel about what you are doing.

Lots of fascinating studies are out there. A 2017 study in the Journal of Applied Sport Physiology found self-talk improves endurance performance in hot conditions. A 2018 study in the Journal of Sport Behavior found that 45 college cross country runners were more likely to experience the magical state of “flow” using motivational self-talk. And it’s not just sports. A 2015 study found that the nature of self-talk is tied to public speaking anxiety.

Given the powerful nature of self-talk, I tried to find a study about how it relates to dancing performance (one of my biggest weaknesses), and now Google gives me advertisements for every dance teacher in a 100-mile radius.

So self-talk works. It’s not a magical elixir, though. A 2018 study in the Sport Psychologist journal found that it didn’t improve ultramarathon performance for a group of runners. But interestingly, those runners thought it was helpful and continued to use it in future events, so it’s possible the study design didn’t catch the effect.

The 2011 meta-analysis indicated it’s less useful for activities involving gross motor control, like running. But that finding points more toward just how effective it is in other sports involving fine motor control (like basketball shooting). And given that trail running involves more fine motor control than road running, self-talk is likely even more effective on trails than roads.

Jump In, the Water’s Fine

What should your self-talk be? That is highly individual, just make sure it’s motivational, positive and uplifting. Think of a phrase or set of phrases you can use in your next hard workout to try it out. “I’m a boss” or “I love me some me” are two fun ones, or you can use study-approved phrases like “Drive forward” or “You’re doing well.” Basically, if Mister Rogers would say it about someone else or Kanye West would say it about himself, then it probably works.

Don’t stop at running. Get a positive internal monologue going at work, with your parenting and yes, on the dance floor. Positive self-talk works, and it sure as heck is more fun than the alternative.

—David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All PlayHis book, Happy Runner, is co-written with his wife Megan and available for pre-order now at Amazon.

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