Self-Talk in Endurance Events – Keep Your InnerVoice Positive

by Will Murry and Craig Howie

Sometimes before and during races, you get a voice inside your head that wants to tell you things.  Welcome to Self-talk.  Actually, Self-talk is a major part of every athlete’s journey.  This voice is often your own; sometimes it’s the voice of someone else: a parent, a sibling, a coach, a teacher.  Often this voice tells you things that get in the way of your goals.  There are some important tools to keep in mind when racing endurance events and this article is about Self-talk, how to keep it productive and positive.

This is not a substitute for actually understanding how best to mentally prepare for grueling endurance events.  Recently, Podium published a valuable guide for mental training specifically addressing IronMan Triathlons.  Check it out: A Long Day Outdoors – Mental Conditioning for IronMan Triathlons. 

Self-talk is prevalent.  Sometimes helpful – sometimes negative and destructive.  Have you ever had this conversation with yourself?

“C’mon, you don’t really have to go this hard.  This race isn’t that important to you, and so what if you don’t lay it out on the run.  Your A Race is really next month anyway.  Let’s just back off a notch and call this a training day.  That’s it, no reason to suffer.  Nobody will notice anyway.”  And on and on.

That kind of chatter going on in your head before or during races or hard workouts can really interfere with your development. Here are five action steps you can take in managing that internal dialogue called Self-talk, to keep it productive and positive:

1. Agree with what the voice is saying, but charge ahead anyway.

“Yes,” you say, “I could back off a little.  You’re right, absolutely, no one will notice.  In the big scheme of things, this doesn’t really matter.  Hey, when the sun burns out we are all out of jobs anyway.  You’re right, you’re right.  No reason to go this hard.  Except, let’s just do it anyway!  What the heck, it’s just a race, and it really doesn’t matter that much, like you said, so let’s keep the pace—you know, just for fun.  Heck, let’s pick it up—even more fun.”  Then set your own pace and go back to work.

2. Send the voice to the other side of finish line. 

Tell the voice, “Hey, thanks for showing up.  You know, I’m kinda busy right now.  Tell you what—I’ll see you after I cross the finish line and we can talk then.”  Then see that voice launching off into space to a place just beyond the finish line timing mats and the volunteers and the water bottles and the chip collectors.  Once you finish, if the voice wants to continue, you can listen to it all you want, but the race is over.

3. Haggle with the voice. 

Strike a bargain with the voice.  “I agree, this is pretty hard.  How about we just keep this pace until the next aid station and reevaluate there?  If we need to walk for a few seconds, no problem, but if we still feel like we can hold this pace, we will.  Whaddya say, do we have a deal?”  If the voice doesn’t agree, ask it what kind of deal it proposes.  In the meantime keep the pace.

4. Consider alternative meanings.

Your lungs burn a little and your legs are beginning to feel like five-quart bags of lactic acid.  What does this mean?  It could mean that you are really cooked and about to fall apart.  It could just as likely mean that you are exactly where you want to be in this race, working at potential and trained enough to have plenty left.  Shakespeare wrote, “Nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”  What you think it means becomes what it means.  So consider different meanings for what the voice is telling you.  “Man, those legs are getting heavy.  It must mean that you are about to crack,” says the voice.  Better slow down, or even walk, or even better…let’s go home.”  But you add to the conversation by thinking of a few different things that the feeling in your legs might mean.  “Hmmm, those legs are a little roasty, I agree.  It could mean that we are right on with the race plan.  Hey, it’s a race, right, not a nap.  It is after all reasonable to expect that after this much of the racecourse the legs will be feeling it.”  Explore a couple of other alternative meanings.  “Or, think of all the gains for my fitness.  Nothing like going hard to build a little more VO2 capacity and strength for next time.  And mental toughness, too.  If I can hold this pace, think of the next race.  I can recall this time and say, ‘Well last time I raced I didn’t quit, and I didn’t die then, so I can do it again.’”  I’ll bet right now you can think of two or three other meanings that could be true about race-pace sensations.

5. Embrace the voice.

Enlist the voice as an ally.  Welcome it.  When the voice pops up, urging you to back down, engage it.  “Hey, there you are.  I thought I might see you right about here.  Thanks for showing up.  I’m glad for the company.  You know, the only reason that I feel this suffering is because we are going really hard.  Great, huh?  I mean really, if we were treating this as a joke we wouldn’t feel this way at all.  But no joke, my friend, we are racing.  And the reason that you are here is because we are at race pace.  So I’m glad you are here.  We are on schedule.  Help me bring it in.”  Then listen to what the voice says.  Most likely it will soften its tone and try to get on board with you, to get on your side, maybe even to lead a little and get out in front.

So there are five little chats you can have when that voice tries to take you off your goals.  Remember this: in all cases, this voice has an underlying positive intention. Underneath it all, at the root, this voice wants what is best for you.  And when it seems to be pulling the rope in the wrong direction, remember that its strategy might be unhelpful, or the way it expresses itself could be better, but that it’s really on your side.  Use these five chats to help it get there.

For a more in-depth treatment of the topic of how not to cave in, check out A Long Day Outdoors: Mental Conditioning for Ironman Triathlons.

About Will Murray:

Will Murray is a three-time Ironman finisher, a certified NLP Practitioner and has coached more than 100 endurance athletes on mental training.  Will is also an experienced mountaineer, having climbed all 68 14,000 peaks in the continental United States in addition to having reached the summit of Island Peak (20,300’), Lobuche East (20,078’) and seven peaks 18,000 feet and above in Nepal, Citlaltapaltel (18,400’) in Mexico and Batian on Mt. Kenya (17,058).  His most recent project is as the author of Uncle! The Definitive Guide for Becoming the World’s Greatest Aunt or Uncle (Morgan James Publishing, 2011).

About Craig Howie – Colorado Triathlete Coach
Craig grew up in Wyoming where he competed as a wrestler. In 1995 after a devastating knee injury, he was introduced to the amazing world of endurance athletics, and by 1996 had run his first marathon. In 1998 while earning his secondary teaching degree, he began coaching endurance athletes in many different areas including triathlon, duathlon, running, cycling, cyclocross, and swimming. In 2001 Craig moved to Longmont and began working closely with the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine. He became “a fly on the wall” and soaked up all of the knowledge of endurance sports coaching he could. These opportunities opened his eyes to amazing training methods and motivated him to become a professional multisport coach. In 2004, Craig left the teaching world and began the Howie Endurance Project. Craig and Jennifer met while in college at the University of Northern Colorado, were married in 2001 and have two young boys. Managing family, work and training has given Craig great insight into how to balance sports with the rest of life. In 2009, Craig qualified for his professional license in triathlon and is now racing as a pro.

One thought on “Self-Talk in Endurance Events – Keep Your InnerVoice Positive

  • August 13, 2011 at 9:23 pm

    A version of this article first appeared in the Boulder Triathlon Club newsletter, August 2011. thanks to Wendy McMillen, editor.


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