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How Self-Talk May Influence Long-Term Adaptation

An incredible study from 2014 found that simple self-talk training and intervention can improve performance. What might happen when those psychology-influenced performance gains interact with physiological adaptations over multiple training cycles? My theory: our internal dialogues may hold one of the keys to unlocking breakthroughs.

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A disembodied voice booms from above: What are you thinking right now? 

“That’s a weird question,” I would respond to the disembodied voice. “You know what I’m thinking, sitting here at my computer. I’m thinking about writing an article.”

 What are you really thinking?

Damn, disembodied voice, thanks for the free therapy. I guess… I’m thinking about how a critic will perceive this corny narrative framing of the article. I’m thinking about how hard it is to start writing on a blank page. I’m thinking about how I can avoid screwing up.

I can’t hear you! I have a real tricky time hearing people who don’t believe in themselves. Your words are beautiful, thunderous bison parading across the plains. OWN THAT BISON SWAG.

You know what? You’re right. This is going to be a great article! Let’s do this!

RELATED: Take Control Of Your Self-Talk

That self-talk battle unfolds almost every week when I sit down to write. The disembodied voice actually has a couple of earthly forms that have my back in the weekly fight. First, it’s my mom, who has praised my writing since I was four. She still tells me that I’m a great writer after every article, even when she doesn’t understand the pop culture references. Later, my eventual wife Megan read my blog after our first date and said she loved it. She still edits every article, with a mix of “WTF?” questions and joyful “LOL”s. Those two gave me the tools to overcome my baseline thoughts: that my writing is a soggy massive bag of shit. They got me through tons of term papers, a thousand blog posts, hundreds of articles, and a book. They got me to say that I’m a damn good writer, and to mean it, even if I still have to fake that self-belief sometimes.

But that long-term growth never would have happened without millions of words. And I never would have gotten to millions of words if I let the self-critical thoughts dictate my actions. Long live those miraculous majestic bison words!

I think it’s obvious how self-talk influences something like writing, which is a purely mental process outside of some finger contractions. I have the fingers of Schwarzenegger and the body of a stork. What might be less obvious is how thoughts influence physical capacity. It takes many millions of running steps to find your potential, and the actual muscular and aerobic output of those steps may be fundamentally altered by day-to-day self-talk. So mid-run, when the disembodied voice bellows, “What are you thinking right now?”… that’s not all it’s saying.

Over years of training, the voice echoes off the walls until it turns into a whisper. “Be aware: those thoughts may determine what you become.”

RELATED: Performance-Enhancing Thoughts

science self talk running exercise

The Science of Self Talk

Self-talk is “a multidimensional phenomenon concerned with athletes’ self-addressed verbalizations that can serve both instructional and motivational functions.” There’s a fascinating body of psychology and exercise physiology research examining the role of self-talk on performance, but I want to specifically highlight one 2014 study in the Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise journal. It included 24 participants who were recreationally active athletes, who were split up into two groups of 12. Each participant made three trips to the lab:

  • Trip one: they used a stationary bike to establish VO2 max and peak power output using an incremental test, increasing 50 watts every 2 minutes until volitional exhaustion. 
  • Trip two: at least 3 days later, they biked at 80% of their peak power output until they couldn’t pedal anymore, measuring perceived exertion each minute and blood lactate at three minutes.
  • Trip three: at least 14 days later, they repeated the time-to-exhaustion test at 80% of peak power from the initial test.

RELATED:Science-Backed Tricks To Talking Yourself into a PR

The control group of 12 just suffered on the bike with no changes. Poor, poor souls.

The intervention group of 12 completed a motivational self-talk program between trips two and three. The first stage of the program involved a 30-minute introduction to self-talk, along with the completion of a workbook that helped them identify four personalized self-talk statements. Two of those statements were for early in the test (“feeling good!”); two were for later (“push through this!”). They could have just watched Ted Lasso, but I guess this works too.

Stage two of the program had the participants practice using the self-talk phrases in at least three training sessions between the tests, adjusting statements as needed. I really identify with this, as during every treadmill workout, I look, sound, smell, and perform like a beautiful thunderous bison.

Alright, let’s take a quick step back and turn this into a science class. What do you expect to happen? My hypothesis would be a slight performance improvement in the intervention group relative to the control group, perhaps attributable to the knowledge of an intervention. The placebo effect is a helluva drug. 

I’d be wrong, because the difference was massive. The self-talk group improved by an average of 114 seconds, while the control group was 13 seconds worse (for a test taking under 10 minutes). The error bars were big, but the difference was significant. There was a significant reduction in perceived exertion for the self-talk group, but no changes in heart rate or lactate. In other words, self-talk made the athletes perform better via cognitive processes, rather than purely physical ones.

RELATED: Trail Running Mental Superpowers

Self-Talk and Physiology

That finding is subject to countless disclaimers, from debating about the efficacy of time-to-exhaustion tests (time trials could be more accurate) to questioning the repeatability of the findings (not every study mirrors the results). For example, a 2018 study in The Sports Psychologist did a similar self-talk intervention on ultramarathon runners before a 60 mile race, finding no significant difference in performance between the groups. Interestingly, 6 months after that study, the participants were still using the self-talk interventions in training and racing, suggesting they perceived some benefit that may have gotten washed out by the complexity of ultra race day.

Whether self-talk makes a difference on race day is up for debate. I think that athletes are rarely motivation-limited in competitions. What we think is “wanting it” is actually “subconsciously perceiving the physiological capacity to push faster or longer before fatigue wins.” Where I think all of this really matters is in training, when all of us are motivation-limited at times.

On a hill workout, what are you thinking? My personal temptation at 180 heart rate is sometimes to think I AM A SUCKY DUMB COWARD. Physiology is still physiology, so maybe on that hill workout, I go just a couple seconds slower over each interval. It’s within the margin of error of the Strava file. The only evidence is the bitter aftertaste of self-doubt.

….or is it? Because lurking in our physiology are some triggers with the potential for wild chain reactions. A few seconds here or there might not show up on Strava, but our cells don’t give a single damn about Strava. A 0.5% output improvement involves slightly greater aerobic demand, muscular recruitment, and neuromuscular efficiency. And that growth compounds over time. The first 0.5% might be a self-talk trick, sleight-of-hand magic that deludes our physiology. But our physiology actually adapts to the delusion.

RELATED: Harness The Power of Cognitive Associations for Better Trail Running

Self-talk compounds into fundamental physical changes at the cellular and systems levels. Imagine the athletes in the 2014 study. Those performance improvements become fitness improvements, to which they apply more self-talk, creating more performance and fitness improvements. Over a few years, 0.5% becomes 5% becomes 15%, a small fraction at a time. Armchair quarterbacks on Strava are looking at weekly miles when they should be looking at weekly compliments.

science positive self talk running exercise performance
Portrait of a trail runner

Self-Talk and Long-Term Adaptation

And these slight changes in output are not happening to a robot that crunches numbers to determine response. The wacky science of adaptation relies on the endocrine and nervous systems responding to physical signals. Improving self-talk may reduce the impact of the stress hormone cortisol, preventing perturbations to sex hormones. The nervous system may leave the heightened state of activation characteristic of self-criticism, creating a better context for recovery and growth. Layer in the slight performance improvements, and it’s an orgy of positive adaptation stimuli that start in the brain but distribute to every cell in our bodies. 

What does it all mean? In coaching, there’s a general trend I see in athletes: Whether they think they’re going to improve or not, they’re often right. I think that training theory should be much more Mr. Rogers and much less Bob Knight (or whatever other jerk coach comes to mind). The problem is that many of us either had mentors who were critical, or formative experiences that elevate self-criticism and perfectionism as virtues rather than roadblocks. 

You are freaking awesome, just the way you are. I think that embracing your inherent worth as an athlete can cause compounded fitness gains that make you significantly faster over time. 

RELATED: Redefine Your Relationship With Pre-Race Nerves

BELIEVE

I started this article with a prompt, asking: What are you thinking right now? Let’s do another. What were you told to think about your athletic self as a kid?

I was lucky–I could do no wrong in my dad’s eyes when he coached my youth teams, and his voice is still what I come back to when the negative self-talk wants to take control. But that’s rare. After talking about this topic on our podcast, we got so many emails discussing bad childhood experiences with athletic performance and competition. Kids told in gym class that they were slow; high school athletes relegated to the bench for one bad play; honest mistakes leading to vicious meltdowns from a coach or parent. And when those athletes do a hill repeat now, those voices return.

So let’s start fresh. Start by becoming aware of your self-talk–I suggest working with a sports psychologist or therapist, but this is also a fundamental tenet of mindfulness. Every time out the door for a run, set a self-talk intention (ideally working with one of those experts), focusing on uplifting narratives about yourself and your goal. Practice it. Try to give yourself permission to fail, both at competitive exercising and positive self-talk. Most of all, hit that BELIEVE sign each morning not because you believe right now, but because you recognize belief as a valid goal to strive toward.

You are freaking awesome, just the way you are. I think that embracing your inherent worth as an athlete can cause compounded fitness gains that make you significantly faster over time. 

But for full disclosure, looking at the studies, I’m not really sure of a consensus. So we need to do a scientific test. You’re in the self-talk intervention group–try a few million steps of self-belief and let’s test this theory.

David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they wrote a book called The Happy Runner.