Recently, researchers in the UK demonstrated that structured self-talk can improve endurance performance. And by a remarkable amount.
Simply by repeating personalized, motivational phrases to themselves, test subjects were able to pedal 18% longer on endurance tests before they reached the point of exhaustion. Subjects who were not instructed to use self-talk methods crapped out much earlier, feeling exhausted and unable to push through it.
The study appeared in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. Its an important contribution to an emerging and enlightening theory of endurance performance, known as the psycho-biological model.
It is the first study to show that self-talk alone can improve endurance and reduce the intensity of our perceived effort.
Why Does Perceived Effort Matter?
The psycho-biological model holds that reaching the point of maximal exhaustion is a cognitive choice based on perceived effort and intensity, not our physical limitations. Our beliefs and perceptions about how hard we are working determine when we feel exhausted to the point of terminating exercise, not the performance capacities of our muscles or cardiovascular system.
Therefore, if we modify our perceptions by telling ourselves we have more in the tank, we can wring additional performance output from the same body. Essentially, we can raise the bar and reach new heights by merely believing we can.
Using The Technique
To take advantage of this practice, it makes sense to replicate the techniques used in the study as much as possible. In the trial, subjects were given a list of motivational statements and asked to choose four. They were instructed to pick two to use in the early to mid stages of a workout, such as “this is easy,” or “feeling good,” and two that would become more meaningful as they neared exhaustion, such as “push through this.”
The subjects practiced using these statements during exercise performed three times a week for two weeks. Each participant kept a workbook to track which statements seemed most effective. Ineffective statements were replaced or rephrased. After three weeks, this self-talk group significantly surpassed their baseline endurance results and the results of a group who trained just as much but without guidance or recommendations on the use of self-talk.
The complete list of statements provided to the subjects was not published with the report, but I don’t think it much matters. We can easily get the idea of what type of statements might work for us, and probably the more personalized they are the better. Questionnaires employed prior to the study revealed that self-talk during exercise was already common among most participants before the study took place. Many people naturally use some form of self-talk during workouts even if, like me, they never thought about it much. The proven performance benefit, however, occurred only in the group that used motivational statements in a structured, practiced manner.
This means choosing specific statements, reminding ourselves to use them before workouts or competitions, using them consistently, tracking the results, and modifying statements if they are duds.
What a great way to safely enhance exercise performance, requiring nothing we’re not already equipped with. Along with sound nutrition and quality sleep habits, add it to the short list of natural, healthy ways to boost performance. Find or make up your own motivational and self-affirming statements. Practice them and assess the results.
I suspect that that liberal incorporation of expletives helps, buts that a separate topic.