Self-talk and the endurance athlete – Experience Tells Us

Tom Holland

As a sports performance coach, I occasionally pace my clients during their run workouts. Before I moved to Connecticut I lived in New York City and this meant that I made hundreds of runs within Central Park. I would vary the workouts depending on the fitness level and goals of the client I was working with: long slow distance (LSD) runs around the six mile loop, fartlek workouts around the reservoir, hill repeats up that one curving ascent in Harlem.

I had one particular client with whom I would run twice a week, nothing fancy, just four to six miles at her pace of around ten minutes per mile on the LSD course that I did with many clients. However, unlike my other clients, when we approached that aforementioned hill in Harlem, she basically would shut down. As the hill slowly came into view, she would undergo noticeable performance and physiological changes. Her pace would slow to a shuffle, and she would drop her gaze to the road directly in front of her. Her breathing would become increasingly more labored and shallow. Yet we hadn’t yet even reached the hill!

It was obvious she was already experiencing the hill in her mind. All the signs she exhibited were exactly what one might expect of a runner who was approaching the end of a tough hill, not the beginning of it! I believe that this reaction can be attributed to the client’s own internal monologue, often referred to as “self-talk.” I can only imagine what was going through her mind as the hill came into view. “Oh no, here comes that huge hill,” “I don’t feel well,” “This is going to be hard,” “I ate too much today,” “I hate hills!” This thought process caused her body to react with signs of anxiety and stress. She experienced (unfortunately) negative self-talk, and her body followed suit.

The mind has incredible power over the way the body reacts. A common mental exercise used to illustrate this point is: Close your eyes. Now imagine yourself in your kitchen. Walk to your refrigerator, open it up, and take out a big yellow lemon. Bring it to the counter and cut it into four quarters. Now put one quarter in your mouth and suck on it. Really imagine yourself tasting that juicy lemon. How is your body reacting? Is there increased saliva in your mouth? Is your face puckering up? If so, your body is obviously reacting in some way to the mere thought of that piece of lemon in your mouth–the identical reactions that you would experience if it were actually happening! If this did happen to you, stop for a moment and think about the powerful implications of this phenomenon and recognize the tremendous potential, both positive and negative, it has for athletic performance. If, through our thoughts, we can create negative physiological responses in our body, doesn’t it stand to reason that we can likew ise direct our thoughts to increase our performance?

R.W. Lazarus said, “Emotion is a direct manifestation of a person’s appraisal of any given situation.” Loosely translated, this means that we can choose how we define a situation. The competitive situation is in itself not stressful. Rather how the athlete chooses to interpret that event determines whether it is stressful or not for him or her. The stress response is a process. Richard H. Cox (2002) states that it is this process, not the event itself, which ultimately establishes the degree and extent of the stress response (1).

So what exactly is self-talk? Cox defines self-talk as an effective technique for controlling thoughts and influencing feelings, both of which can influence self-confidence as well as performance (2). All athletes engage in some type of self-talk, whether they realize it at the time or not. Endurance athletes are more attuned to this concept than most other athletes. There is something about pushing the body for hours upon end that causes one to become much more conscious of the voices chattering on in our minds. Ask anyone who has competed in an endurance event such as a marathon or Ironman Triathlon about his or her experiences. They will inevitably attempt to describe the incredible emotional roller coaster that one must endure in order to cross that finish line. One moment you are thinking “This is the best thing I have ever done, I feel great!” then two minutes later, “I feel like garbage, my quads are on fire; why the heck am I doing this?” And the process endlessly repeats itself over and over again. I believe that the top endurance athletes are essentially physiologically similar. Those who best control the mental side of competition on race day, the ups and the downs, the foreseen and unforeseen, ultimately end up on the podium. Self-talk is an essential component of the endurance athlete’s mental game.

Cox also describes three distinct categories of self-talk: Task-specific statements relating to technique, encouragement and effort, and mood words (3). One can see the implications of all three for improving athletic performance.

Task-specific statements relating to technique involve an internal dialogue that focuses on a specific motor skill. For instance, during a marathon an athlete may utilize such thoughts as “relax the shoulders,” and “soft foot-strike.” These self-talk statements serve dual functions–they improve the athlete’s technique and control the athlete’s focus. Doing so allows him or her to concentrate on relevant cues while blocking out extraneous or negative internal and external cues. If one has a cramp, self-talk related to technique can serve to switch your focus away from the pain until it subsides.

Encouragement and effort is the second type of self-talk. Statements involving encouragement are invaluable in pushing oneself though difficult portions of a race. “Keep on keeping on,” as Ironman creator John Coffins has been known to say, is a simple yet incredibly powerful example of this. “You can do it,” “Just one more hill,” “No problem” all work wonders. Self-talk statements that deal with controlling effort are also crucial mental tools, especially during endurance events where effort must be carefully monitored throughout the race. “Nice and easy,” “flow,” and “glide” when you want to maintain an easier level of intensity, or “push,” “hammer,” and “pick it up,” when you want to raise your level are all examples of effort-related self-talk.

The final type of self-talk is that which involves manipulating mood state. I believe that this is the most crucial of all three types of self-talk, as well as the most powerful. Take Ironman Triathlete Natascha Badmann for example. She consistently excels at Ironman Hawaii, regardless of race conditions. She is a perfect example of an athlete who utilizes self-talk to its fullest; no matter how hard the winds are hammering during the bike portion of the competition, Natascha maintains her smile! She once stated that she focuses on only one word during tough times–a single solitary word that she uses to manipulate her mood state. She won’t divulge what this word is, but whatever it is, it most certainly works for her!

No matter how badly you may feel during a race, you can affect your body with the thoughts you play over and over in your mind. Repeatedly thinking a simple phrase such as “I feel great,” when you feel like garbage can actually change the way in which you feel. Recall the example of the lemon. What your mind perceives, the body believes. The self-talk can be song lyrics played on a mental loop: “I feel good…I knew that I would,” from U2’s “It’s a beautiful day.” Or use your own creation to “trigger” a positive mood response. Try to make phrases simple and short. Phrases that rhyme are very effective. I personally have a collection of self-talk statements that I call upon throughout my races. No matter how badly I feel during an event, I put a huge smile on my face and start my playing my internal tapes. One of my favorite Ironman mantras is “As the day gets longer, I get stronger.” I usually pull this one out at around mile eighty of the Ironman bike course, where the race really begins. I change “tapes” co nstantly, also utilizing acronyms and single word self-talk The results are amazing. I enjoy my races regardless of the conditions.

Self-talk is like any other skill; the more you practice, the better you become at performing the skill. Become better at controlling your thoughts and you will undoubtedly become a better athlete in the process. There is no wrong or incorrect self-talk. Whatever works for you is right. Create some self-talk statements of your own and try them out during your next race. See what happens. Hamlet was on to something when he said, “Nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Don’t ever underestimate the power of the mind.

Tom Holland, M.S., C.S.C.S. is the president of TeamHolland LLC, a fitness consulting company. A Cert fled Strength and Conditioning Specialist with a Masters degree in Exercise Science & Sports Psychology, Tom has seven Ironman finishes including Malaysia, Germany, New Zealand and Australia. You may contact him at www. teamholland. com.


(1.) Cox, R.H. (2002). Sport Psychology: Concepts and Applications (5th ed.). McGraw-Hill. 194-195.

(2.) Cox, p. 26.

(3.) Cox, pp. 26-28.

COPYRIGHT 2003 American Running & Fitness Association

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

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