How To Use Positive Self-Talk To Boost Performance

We have all been there before, one minute you feel invincible, and the next you’re ready to throw in the towel. When things are going well, it is easy to do the “right” things. What about when the going gets tough? Are you able to separate how you “feel” from how you talk to yourself? Are you able to stay positive and refocus? Or are you just as easy to let negative self-talk enter your mental space and drag you down?  

Not every performance will feel good. Perhaps your best performances are the ones where nothing felt good, but you were able to continue to push through. Just like training for physical performance, it is vitally important to train your mental muscles too. You don’t show up on race day hoping you will be ready to perform, do you? No, you practice and train for the specific demands that racing requires, so much so that it becomes habitual and ingrained into your subconscious. This is the same for mental skills that include positive self-talk. The more you practice, the better you are able to use these skills in your arsenal. 

Positive Self-Talk

There is zero doubt that your words have power over you. These words are loaded with different associations and feelings that can affect us in ways we may not even realize. For example that one workout you always dread doing. The one where when it shows up on your training schedule you immediately have negative thoughts swirling around your brain towards it? The workout didn’t even begin and we’re already off to a negative start. Your body will follow these feelings and how they present in your body: head down defeated, tense shoulders due to anxiety, general lack of energy, the list goes on! Words can influence the way our brains behave at a basic neurological level, which as stated previously, changes the way our bodies perform. The key part to remember: we have the power to control this! 

Let’s start by defining what self-talk is: self-talk is your internal monologue or the running commentary that’s going on in the back of your head. It’s influenced by your subconscious mind and reveals your thoughts, beliefs, questions, fears, and ideas- and influences how you see yourself and the world around you. It can be positive or negative, but since we’re all about becoming better endurance athletes, let’s focus on positive self-talk today and how we can use it to our benefit. 

How do we really know that this “positive self-talk” helps? Based on testing research, cyclists who used self-regulated positive self-talk had an average performance increase of 23,4%.

Self-talk can significantly reduce a rider’s rating of perceived exertion (RPE) and enhance endurance performance. In addition, motivational self-talk can lead to an increase in rider power and improved time-trial performance. Improved performance? Say no more! 

There are three types of positive self-talk we will discuss: 

  1. Motivational
  2. Instructional
  3. Reward

Motivational

Motivational self-talk is your bread and butter form of encouragement. “You got this,” “just one more, you can do it!” These are words that you say as if they were coming from your coach or an outside voice. Research has shown that this type of self-talk is best done when spoken in the second person. This means try using verbiage that includes, “You” vs “I.” 

Motivational self-talk can also be tied to factors linked to your “why.” Why do you do this sport, event, etc? Is it for a charity, or is it for a personal goal/challenge? Remembering your why is also a huge motivator when the going gets tough. 

How would you speak to someone else you care about? You would encourage them to keep going! Use this same idea to encourage yourself. You wouldn’t give up on your friend, so don’t give up on yourself! 

Another strategy with motivational self-talk is to reframe the challenge. Try breaking the mountain ahead of you into smaller, more digestible goals. FOr example: if you’re in the midst of a marathon and still have 20 miles to go, don’t think, “I can’t make it another 20 miles at this pace.” Instead, try this, “I am going to try to keep this pace to the next water station.”

Instructional 

Instructional self-talk is when we focus on a specific task. For example, “relax your shoulders, take a deep breath, keep your cadence up.” Find whatever cues work for you and put them to the test. 

Most athletes cannot truly focus on more than one task at a time, especially when your adrenaline is going, like during a race or a hard interval. By focusing solely on your brain’s internal instruction, you can help block out the additional “noise” you are hearing. 

Reward

The reward side of positive self-talk is your pat on the back, the congratulations method. For example, you just finished a hard interval, but have three more to go; try this, “Awesome job, you nailed that, now recover and relax to prepare.” What if the last interval did not go so well, how should we talk to ourselves then? “Maybe that did not go as we hoped, but you still tried your hardest, you have three more chances to hit your target!” 

Never overlook even the smallest of successes. Many times we only stop to praise ourselves when we hit the big goal, but what about the small steps it takes to get there? Use these small stepping stones of success to help fuel the next small goal. 

Application

Now that we know the different types of positive self-talk, now it is time to apply them…but how do we do that? 

Plan:

  1. Schedule
  2. Identify
  3. Rewrite

In order for a plan to be effective, you need to practice it. As with any training, consistency is key! Schedule time in your training to practice your self-talk. Understand areas where you struggle. Is it during testing or hard VO2 efforts? Once you know where you struggle, you can better identify times you need to sharpen your mental tools! When it comes to rewriting, use a combination of the three types of self-talk mentioned previously. What do you say to yourself? What words will you play over in your head? Write it down, review it often, and say it often! 

Practice:

  1. Allenamento
  2. Racing

Don’t wait for mid-race panic to set in as your first opportunity to practice your positive self-talk. It takes hours of practice in order to allow your brain to auto-default to positive self-talk. Expecting to pull kind words out of your hat when you’re deep in the pain cave with no practice beforehand is like expecting to break away in a pro-peloton without training a single day on the bike….not going to happen! During training learn to anticipate race scenarios and rehearse your mental game. In the middle of intervals; rehearse your strategy. Before you go to bed; rehearse your strategy. You get it, repetition and intent of the practice matter. 

When you have been able to review these strategies in training, it is time to apply them to race day. Before the race, practice getting into the right mindset. Learning and preparing for when it gets hard during the race, you will need to regather your thoughts and refocus. During the race, focus on your instructional cues: try thinking of three cues you want to hit. If you prefer motivation, write a keyword or phrase on your arm or top tube to keep you focused. 

Review:

After your hard training session or race where you implemented your mental tactics, think about what worked for you? What didn’t? What negative thoughts still crept in? How can you improve your inner dialogue? Continue to review and monitor improvements in your mental game. 

Staying positive when things aren’t going well is hard. Just because something is hard though, does not mean you should not try and ignore it and hope for the best. Hope is not a strategy. Learning how to control our inner voice and use it to your advantage will make you a better endurance athlete.

Suzie is a Wahoo Sports Science Coaching Specialist, with a focus on expanding the resources and offerings for muti-sport and off-road athletes. Suzie earned a Master’s Degree from Springfield College in Exercise Science and is an NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), USA Cycling Level 3, USA Triathlon Level 1, and USA Track and Field Level 1 Certified Coach. Over the years, Suzie has coached an array of age group athletes as well as elite groups such as the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team, Colorado Springs SWAT Team and K9 Unit, and the US Army 10th Special Forces Group. In addition to training others, Suzie is a professional triathlete with a full Xterra race schedule. As an amateur, she won multiple National and World Championship titles, and since turning professional in 2010, she has won 3 Xterra Elite National Championships, 14 International Xterra races, and finished in the Top 5 at five World Championship events, with her best finishes being 3rd at both the 2016 Xterra and ITU Cross Triathlon World Championships.
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