Use motivational mantras to convince yourself you’re invincible and you’re far more likely to clock a new personal best at The Big Half
Thinking to yourself “I am running fast and strong... I am running fast and strong...” as you climb an interminable hill for the third time in a punishing 10K, the truth may be anything but. However, the words fit in nicely with the rhythm of your feet and if you tell yourself you’re running well, then perhaps you’ll believe it.
It seems logical. After all, if we tell ourselves we’re no good, or that we can’t do it, we tend to prove ourselves right.
In one study, published in the Journal of Sport Behaviour, subjects were randomly assigned to one of two groups taking part in a dart-throwing test. Both groups were told to aim for the bull’s eye on each of their 15 throws, but the first group were asked to tell themselves ‘You cannot do it’ each time they let the dart go, while the second group said ‘You can do it’. The results showed significantly greater accuracy in the can-do group.
“There is lots of evidence showing that what we say to ourselves can influence how we feel and how we perform in sport,” says Andy Lane, professor of sports psychology at the University of Wolverhampton.
Mental performance coach Midgie Thompson agrees: “Phrases like ‘This is tough’ and ‘I’m tired’ can have a physical effect on the body, while telling yourself ‘I can do this’ or ‘I’m strong’ can have the opposite effect.”
Talk yourself strong
Sport psychologists use the term ‘self-talk’ to describe what we say to ourselves before or during training and competition, and studies suggest that positive self-talk can reduce anxiety, increase effort and boost self-confidence – all of which can have a knock-on effect on performance.
Talking to yourself as if you are an encouraging outsider when struggling or suffering on a run is what Thompson calls the ‘cheerleader on your shoulder’ approach. While it can be useful, the mind has a tendency to wander off when you’re just chatting to yourself (it’s known as dissociative conversational chatter). And that’s what makes the mantra so powerful.
“A mantra is a mental device – a word or phrase – that we can fix upon to drive our attention inwards,” explains yoga teacher and runner Laura Denham-Jones. “The word mantra comes from the Sanskrit ‘man’, meaning to think, and ‘tra’ meaning tool. It’s a thought or utterance that can have real influence.”
The key to powerful self-talk and a meaningful mantra is making it relevant and specific to your needs. “Start by identifying where you feel there is room for improvement,” advises Lane. “If, for example, your problem is having negative thoughts, then develop self-talk statements to counter these. This can be difficult to do on your own, so sharing the task with a group of running buddies or a coach can be useful.”
According to Thompson, the strength of a mantra lies in its length, which should be brief, and its content, which should be simple and positive. “It needs to be something that doesn’t require too much effort to repeat or remember,” adds Denham-Jones. “I sometimes just use the word ‘Yes’.”
As with goal-setting, your self-talk needs to be grounded in reality – there’s no point telling yourself you can win The Big Half if it’s patently impossible. But there’s certainly no harm in telling yourself that you’re running well or that you’re going to make it to the finish.
Research from the University of Wales suggests that people following solo pursuits, like running, employ self-talk more than those in group activities or team games. There’s more opportunity to turn your attention inwards when it’s just you and the road to think about.
The repetitive, almost meditative nature of a mantra can act as a tool to focus your mind on the task at hand (an attentional strategy known as association). But it can also be a device to take your mind off your running and, possibly, the accompanying effort or discomfort (dissociation).
“I liken it to when a young child is crying,” says Thompson. “You distract them with something else and then they’re giggling the next minute.”
The University of Wales study found that people were more likely to use self-talk during events than in training, which suggests that we use mantras more to get the best out of ourselves than as a diversion.
Thompson used the phrase ‘I can, I am’ when she ran a marathon recently. “I came up with those words to counter doubts – both mine and other people’s – that I couldn’t make it,” she explains. “It was short and sweet, but powerful.”
Your own mantra needs to have resonance, too. But should it merely act as a potted pep talk, or can it be a way of reminding yourself of important cues: to maintain a high cadence, for example, or keep your head up?
“The content of self-talk can be motivational, as in ‘Come on, you can do this’,” says Lane. “Or it can be instructional: ‘I will focus on relaxing my arms’.” A study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research suggests that both can work equally well: subjects who gave themselves either motivational or instructional cues prior to a stationary vertical jump reached higher than those who did neither.
Lane recommends formulating what he calls an ‘if-then’ plan when devising your self-talk statements. “The beauty of if-then plans is that they put the problem beside the solution,” he explains. “So when the problem occurs, the solution is already in the mindset of the runner.”
Let’s say, for example, that you’re worrying about completing the half-marathon distance: you know you’re going to get tired and that it will hurt. “It’s important to have a positive strategy for coping with the fatigue,” says Lane.
“Tiredness tends to come in waves during endurance running and intense feelings of physical tiredness can pass. I suggest that runners focus on their technique, which is largely under their own control.” You might therefore tell yourself ‘If I am feeling tired, then I will focus on my technique’, and come up with a good instructional cue to assist you.
One that stayed in my head after reading Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run was inspirational ultra runner Caballo Blanco’s mantra ‘Easy, light, smooth, fast’. These are all great instructions for running with good form. “You start with easy, because if that’s all you manage, that’s not so bad,” he tells McDougall.
Counting ‘1,2,3...1,2,3’ in a sort of waltz rhythm, can help to pick up cadence and, more often than not, gain pace. Thompson points out that, along with the rhythm, the visual imagery of waltzing conjures up the right sensations of fluid, sweeping movements.
This just goes to show that if you’re using words, you need to choose them carefully. Thompson gives the example of a cyclist who was struggling with hill climbing and came up with the mantra ‘Slow and steady’ to encourage himself to keep going. “But constantly repeating the word ‘slow’ is like actually instructing yourself to decrease your speed,” she explains. So the cyclist had to change it to ‘Strong and steady’.
But what about deliberate negative self-talk? Can criticising or goading yourself ever work as a challenge to raise your game? Lane believes so: “People can say negative things to themselves to activate arousal [psyche themselves up]. It can act as a warning signal that unless a great deal of effort is made, performance will be poor.”
Copy the legends
Ultra runner Scott Jurek used the mantra ‘This is what you came for’ when he ran in the 2010 24-Hour World Championships (he finished second and broke the US record). “It kept me focused on how badly I wanted the US record and all the work I had done to get there,” he says. “By using the mantra, I was able to break through the pain and discomfort, finding another space to reside in while my body kept forward momentum around the 1.4km loop for 165.7 miles.” Note that despite Jurek’s focus on winning and breaking records, his mantra did not contain these words.