Mantras, motivational quotes and positive self-talk sound like soft things that couldn’t possibly help you stay in that competitive group ride, hold on during a hard threshold interval set or deal with those sweltering summer races. While images of yoga and meditation may come to mind when you think of mantras, the practices of the top athletes demonstrate that what we say to ourselves during exercise can greatly affect our performance by changing how we interpret the inevitable discomfort of endurance sports.
THE IMPORTANCE OF STAYING POSITIVE
A study at Brock University looked at the effect of motivational self-talk on endurance capacity and executive function in hot conditions. The study found two weeks of self-talk training helped athletes endure longer and perform better in cognitive tasks that required focus. This change in performance was attributed to a change in how the athletes interpreted the discomfort rather than the physiological adaptation to heat or improved exercise capacity. The study used a very practical training intervention you can put to use in your own training by watching for negative statements (e.g., it’s so hot, I’m so tired) and work to use more practical or motivating cues in your training (e.g., keep pushing, just a bit more). The key is to keep working on your self-talk during training so you are ready to use it in racing.
“Shut up, legs.”
Former pro road cyclist Jens Voigt is known for his work ethic and also for the phrase “shut up legs,” which has been stickered onto many bikes, emblazoned on T-shirts and is the title of his memoir. His phrase has been used by cyclists of all levels to persist as the burn of hard efforts set in and perhaps add an element of perceived control over one’s body. Given the sheer popularity of the phrase, it is worth trying it or something similar to see if a little aggression and stubbornness helps you push more the next time you think you hit your limit.
The use of positive self-talk in pros and elites is quite common, even if they are not aware of the specific concept, they have likely adapted phrases to use when the going gets tough. Lori Nedescu, a registered dietitian and elite athlete, uses a couple of phrases to motivate herself during the hard moments in road races. “I frequently tell myself ‘let’s do this’ before events to get pumped up and commit mentally to whatever the task is. During races, I tell myself to ‘stay hungry’ meaning, don’t give up, keep after it, keep wanting the result.” This concept of wanting the result is important as often the person who pushes the hardest or longest wants it the most.
MANAGE YOUR EXPECTATIONS
The way we push ourselves mentally to gain better physical performance is key. The gist is the more we expect to be uncomfortable, the more we’re willing to suffer. Matt Fitzgerald, author of “How Bad Do You Want It?,” sets this up nicely, “The more discomfort an athlete expects the more she can tolerate, and the more discomfort she can tolerate the faster she can go.”
One of the most grueling events in the cycling world is the Leadville 100 mountain bike race, which covers 104 miles with more than 14,000 feet of elevation gain. Ken Chlouber, the race founder, is known for saying, “You are better than you think you are, you can do more than you think you can.” This message resonates with the athletes and positively cues them to expect to be challenged.
Speaking of Leadville, Rebecca Rusch, who has won Leadville and earned the nickname the ‘Queen of Pain,’ uses a mantra that her high school track coach gave her: “I can, I will, I won’t be denied.” If it works for the Queen of Pain, it might just work for you, too.