Sound training can take you only so far. To fully express every last bit of fitness on race day, you must push past perceived barriers and keep going when your body is telling you to stop. Talk to world-class endurance athletes about how they manage this, and many will tell you they listen to the voice inside their heads. That may sound a little crazy, but there’s fascinating new research being done on self-talk—the act of repeating a mantra to yourself—that backs it up.
A 2014 study published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, aptly titled “Talking Yourself Out of Exhaustion,” found that simply repeating a mantra reduced perceived effort and increased performance in a time-to-exhaustion cycling test. Self-talk was also cited as a strategy with strong evidence in a 2015 Sports Medicine review paper on the “psychological determinants of whole-body performance.”
Zach Miller, a Colorado-based ultrarunner who won The North Face Endurance Challenge 50-Mile Championship in December 2016 and is known for his no-holds-barred approach to racing, says he uses self-talk to push through particularly tough patches. Miller will repeat, “It ain’t so bad,” a quote he got from Rocky, as well as, “Rough and tough and used to hardships,” an expression Miller’s grandfather would say to him when he was young.
Caroline Boller, a top American ultrarunner who holds the national best 50-mile trail time (5:48), also finds that having a mantra helps her power through rough patches. Boller will repeat, “It’s vast, it’s vast,” to remind herself that there’s a massive gap between the point at which her mind tells her to stop and what her body can actually tolerate. “This reminds me that the pain is only temporary,” she says. “It’s my body trying to protect itself, but my body is overly protective and lying to me.”
Self-talk is an effective strategy because it forces an athlete to take control of her thoughts, says Alister McCormick, a sport and exercise psychologist at the University of St. Mark and St. John in the U.K. and lead author of the 2014 review. “This is especially important when things get tough or go wrong,” he adds.
Having a mantra to call upon occupies an athlete’s mind with something constructive instead of destructive and “helps an athlete see a situation as a challenge instead of a threat.” Such an appraisal is both psychologically and biologically advantageous. Research published in 2013 in the journal Personality and Social Psychology shows that those who react to stressful situations with a challenge response release less cortisol—a hormone associated with inflammation, impaired immune function, and depression—compared to those who perceive stressful situations as a threat.
McCormick says mantras should be short and to the point: something you can easily remember and call upon without effort. Personally, I repeat, “Focus on form,” which kills two birds with one stone—a trick I learned from triathlete Mirinda Carfrae. Crafting a mantra that is meaningful to you and hitting play when you’re in the pain cave is a practical way to more fully realize your potential.