When we’re going for a leisurely long run, a lot of us will pop our headphones in, blast an upbeat banger of a tune and plod along to the beat, often quite distracted from how our body is feeling. However, in most training sessions and races we don’t get that luxury and all of a sudden we don’t have a distraction from the thoughts racing around our head. You know the ones I’m talking about – ‘I need to stop, this is too hard, I am not good enough.’
Practice makes perfect, and as easy as it can be to get stuck in a cycle of negative thoughts, we’re also very capable of training our brains to view things from a sunnier perspective. Not only can that skill make life a little more enjoyable, doing it within the realms of sport can have a huge impact on performance. Using positive self-talk and mantras is one tool you can use to stay in control.
Self-talk can be defined as the conscious or unconscious dialogue that occurs in your mind before, during and after an activity. Engaging in negative self-talk is likely to leave you feeling frustrated, angry or extremely anxious, all which challenge your breathing, increase muscle tension and make it incredibly hard to focus on what you’re meant to. Your performance is likely to be lowered.
In comparison, positive self-talk leaves you feeling more relaxed, calm, centred and able to focus on what you need to do to perform at your best. Using a mantra is a great way to stay focused on keeping your self-talk positive. A mantra is a phrase or sometimes even just a word you can repeat (internally or vocally) to keep your head on track. For example, I will repeat ‘strong’ in my head for the whole swim leg of a race.
You’ve heard the sayings ‘mind over matter’ and ‘get your head in the game’ – and that’s exactly why we use positive self-talk and mantras. They help you stay in control of what’s going on inside you’re head. If you’re focused on repeating ‘strong’ it’s a lot harder for thoughts along the lines of ‘I can’t do this, I’m tired, it hurts’ to come into play.
As you gain experience in the sport you’ll be able to look back on training sessions and races and recognise times you’ve let the thoughts in your head make or break you. I know I can!
For others who are just starting out, you might want a little bit more evidence. Research has shown that athletes who engage in positive self-talk show increased control, decreased perceived exertion and an overall increase in endurance performance 1,2.
Just as you train for each leg of a triathlon, you need to train your mind to use these strategies. I like to think of it as building a house. Starting from the ground up you build a solid foundation as you lay each brick. Finally, you finish it off with the roof – the bit on top responsible for protecting you through the storms! It doesn’t matter how strong the walls are, without a roof that house is pretty much useless. Training for a triathlon is exactly the same thing. You can do all the swimming, cycling and running you want, but unless you train your head (your roof) you’re unlikely to achieve the results you’ve worked so hard for.
It’s one thing to understand the value and importance of positivity, and another to be able to actually implement it. When something is going wrong it can be really hard to remember the positive words you’d thought of, which is why I like to write them down.
- Write your words of choice on your hand/arm so you can see it when cycling and running
- Write it on some tape and stick it to your bike frame
- Write it on your drink bottles or pop top bottles if you carry them for the run.
I have done all three… and sometimes all three at once! Maybe you’ll look a little silly, but you’ll probably start to notice that using tricks like this are way more common than you realise. You can buy stickers for your bike that have positive words on them, you’ll see people with things threaded through their shoelaces! If you’re still not convinced, you need to read Chrissie Wellingtons latest book. This 4 x Ironman World Champion is extremely vocal about the power of a mantra and was known to have words from her favourite poem ‘If’ written on her race day drink bottles. If it’s good enough for her, it’s definitely good enough for the rest of us!
At training or during a race is not the only times your self-talk can influence your performance. We also engage in self-talk at home in our downtime and post race, often as soon as we cross the finish line. Be conscious of the language you’re using here too. Analysing your performance and working on your weaknesses is a key component of making improvements. But give yourself feedback as if you would a friend – in a constructive manner that also acknowledges the things you did really well.
Finally, it’s always good to remember that you are not the only one impacted by your attitude. Especially when training in a group, the language you use to describe your own performance is contagious. No one likes to be surrounded by someone constantly complaining about their ability or their results… Especially if that person has just clocked a faster time than you!
As we said earlier, practice makes perfect. Have a think and choose some words or phrases that mean a lot to you, it’s different for everyone. To all those Garmin-loving, data-obsessed triathletes out there I am sorry to say that mental strength isn’t something you’ll be able to record and post about on Strava. However, improving it may just be the reason you get that next PR. Our TriChicks singlets feature the saying ‘positive vibes, negative splits.’ Hopefully, after reading this article you will understand why.