Positive Self Talk: Inside the Heads of America's Top Runners

A study published last year shed some interesting light on the role self-talk can play when it comes to endurance performance.

Researchers split 24 participants into two groups and had them complete cycling time trials to exhaustion. For the next two weeks, one group was given an education in positive self-talk and instruction to help them develop motivational statements they could rely on during the next time trial. The control group received no such instruction.

When they returned to complete another bike test, the positive self-talk group lasted 18 percent longer than they did originally, while the control group's performance didn't change. The researchers also found that the subjects in the self-talk group ranked their perceived exertion lower, indicating that the task felt easier to them, despite the fact that they actually biked for a longer period of time.

More: 11 Mental Tips to Improve Your Running

While self-talk works in the lab, anecdotal evidence also demonstrates that it's effective in actual competitive situations. To get an idea of what goes on in the minds of the pros, we asked a group of elite track, road and ultra trail runners about the self-talk they rely on during competition. You may find that the same inner dialogue works for your next big race.

Ryan Hall
2008 Olympian in the marathon, 2:04:58 marathon PR, U.S. record holder in the half marathon (59:43)

"One of my favorites is simple, but effective. It's hard to think too deeply when I'm going to the well, so I just tell myself over and over again: 'You're doing great.'"

"Another one I like to think of is a proverb that says, 'As a man thinks in his heart, so he is.' So based on that, I like to be on the starting line thinking as if I have already accomplished my goal for the race."

Ellie Greenwood
Winner of the IAU 100K World Championships and 2014 Comrades Marathon (89K), course record holder at the Western States Endurance 100-Mile Run, 2011 and 2012 North American Female Ultrarunner of the Year

"One of my favorite mantras is 'Tough times don't last, but tough people do.' There can be highs and lows in ultras and I like to think of myself as tough, which is why I like this saying."

"Another one that I like is a quote from Steve Prefontaine: 'The only good pace is suicide pace and today is a good day to die.' Obviously I don't mean to make light of suicide, but I like this one because it really implies that race day is that day you push yourself to the absolute limit and don't hold back or stay in your comfort zone."

Janet Cherobon-Bawcom
2012 Olympian in the 10,000 meters and the 2011 and 2012 USA Running Circuit Champion

"My positive self-talk is usually me flashing back to the training I've done—the workouts that went well and showed me that I'm ready to accomplish whatever the day's task is. If I've got a tough two-mile stretch in a race, I'll think back to a great two-mile repeat at Buffalo Park in Flagstaff and I'll remind myself, 'I've done this in practice, so just do it again out here on race day.' I get to train in such beautiful and familiar places, letting my mind revisit them during a race really settles me and gives me confidence."

Tyler Pennel
2014 U.S. National Marathon Champion and runner-up at the 2014 U.S. 10K National Championships

"One of the standard mantras I use is 'Stay relaxed.' I like this one because it gets me to focus on relaxing and running 'relaxed at 95 percent, rather than straining at 100 percent,' as my coach says."

  • 1
  • of
  • 2
NEXT

About the Author

Mackenzie Lobby Havey

Mackenzie Lobby Havey is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and photographer with a Master's in Kinesiology from the University of Minnesota. She has run 10 marathons and is a USATF certified coach. When she's not writing, she's out swimming, biking, and running the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes. Check out her website at mackenzielobby.com.

Mackenzie Lobby Havey is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and photographer with a Master's in Kinesiology from the University of Minnesota. She has run 10 marathons and is a USATF certified coach. When she's not writing, she's out swimming, biking, and running the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes. Check out her website at mackenzielobby.com.

Discuss This Article