Mantras: The Magic of Self Talk

The third tool is the mental game is using mantras or self talk. This is something that you may already be doing instinctively during long runs, workouts, and races. Today I will talk a little bit about the research that supports this and some tips for incorporating it into your training. It is a proven technique, both in research and out on the race course for improving performance.

The Research

Using positive self talk can decrease your rate of perceived exertion (RPE, how hard a given effort feels) and make it easier for you to maintain a given pace during a race. Motivational self talk has been shown to increase power output in a cycling time trial with no corresponding increase in RPE. The cyclists using motivational self talk finished as much as 5% faster than the control group that did not use motivational self talk. Meaning that the cyclists went faster although they did not feel like they were. Essentially their RPE was associated with a greater performance with self talk than without it. In another study cyclists increased their time to exhaustion by 18%  and reduced their RPE, by using positive self talk. These results most likely carry over to running. By using positive self talk you can go faster for a given RPE. It’s probably not a big enough jump that 10k pace feels as easy as half marathon pace, but it’s certainly not an insignificant difference. We are not sure exactly why this works but it has been hypothesized that positive self talk increases motivation during exercise, prolonging time to exhaustion and reducing RPE.  Self talk is an extremely effective mental tool for improving running performance.

How to do it?

A mantra is a phrase or word that you repeat over and over during exercise to help keep you motivated. Select something short that is easily remembered and stated. If you have a form cue (i.e. “Run tall”, “smooth is fast”) that might fit well. If there is a motivational phrase you have from a favorite coach or teacher, that can also be used here. It’s actually important that you select the phrase yourself. This puts you in control of your self talk and increases its effectiveness. Simply put, what works for me is not going to work for you simply because my mantra doesn’t necessarily mean anything to you. My mantra has meaning and history for me and not for anyone else. Basically pick something positive that will remind you to keep going. Choose a mantra that has meaning for you to maximize your chances of it being effective.

Another element to consider is that speaking to yourself in the third person is more effective in managing emotions than talking to yourself in the first person. Saying “I can do this” is not as effective as “Paul, you can do this.” Researchers have said that using the third person creates psychological distance and allows us to better cope with the situation. It allows us to be less emotional about the event and more likely to accept the advice, even though it’s coming from ourselves. 

It’s easy for our minds to wander while running so doing this effectively for significant stretches will take practice. Using a mantra during a run or a race is a great process goal. When you practice, it’s a good idea to use your mantra only on hard days. Because of the increase in speed without a corresponding increase in effort or RPE, save the practice of mantras for workouts and long runs. If you use self talk it is easy to slip into a faster pace without realizing it. As powerful as mental tools are, “physiology always collects its debts” (Ross Tucker). You don’t want to find yourself overtraining on easy days because you kicked up your mental game. Help keep your easy days easy by using a mantra only on hard days.

Summary

  1. Pick a a mantra that has meaning for you. This will be more effective.
  2. When talking to yourself use the third person instead of the first person, to maximize effect
  3. Practice your mantra on workouts and long runs to avoid training too hard on easy days.

Let me know how you are doing with this.

Enjoy the Run.

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