If you want to excel at endurance sports, the one element that you will need to confront is pain. Injury-free pain associated with endurance sport can be the product of several factors. For example, your heart rate may have exceeded a comfortable level. Or you may have a burning sensation in active muscles due to a build-up of lactate. Whatever its cause, if you can develop effective coping strategies for tolerating higher levels of injury-free pain, it will give you an edge during competition.
Professional athletes often use self-talk to cope with exertion. Former Olympic cyclists, for example, cite positive self-talk as one of their primary strategies for coping with exertive pain. The kind of things they said to themselves were "Hey, I'm trained for this," "I can get through this. It will get easier soon" and "This is what I'm supposed to be feeling right now".
Recently a group of international researchers set out to investigate whether this frequently used psychological strategy really could change perceived exertion and endurance performance. Led by scientists from the Institute for the Psychology of Elite Performance in Wales, the study involved 24 recreationally trained volunteers with an average age of 25.
At the beginning of the study, all participants were asked to pedal a stationary bike at about 80% of their maximum force until they felt that they could pedal no more. The group was then randomly split, with half asked to go away and carry on with their normal aerobic activities for two weeks before a second exercise test. Meanwhile, the other half of the group was taught how best to talk to themselves in an encouraging way.
Along with phrases that psychologists had previously found to be motivating, such as "You're doing well," the volunteers were asked also to think about expressions that they had used during exercise in the past. "Feeling good" was a popular mantra. The volunteers practiced this self-talk during exercise for the next two weeks before returning to the lab for another cycling test, during which they repeated their mantras either aloud or silently.
The researchers found that motivational self-talk had a significant effect on time-to-exhaustion. The self-talk group could cycle for an impressive 18% longer than their original test times, whereas the control group showed no such improvement. The rating of perceived exertion on a 10-point scale also climbed more slowly in the self-talk group - in effect, they were able to convince themselves that the exercise felt easier.
So, don't berate yourself during exercise. Instead tell yourself you're not as tired as your body says you are, and chances are, it will end-up becoming true.
1. Kress JL, Statler T. A naturalistic investigation of former Olympic cyclists' cognitive strategies for coping with exertional pain during performance. J Sport Behav 2007; 30: 428-52.
2. Blanchfield AW et al. Talking yourself out of exhaustion: The effects of self-talk on endurance performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2013 [Epub ahead of print].