In February 2018, I participated in a snowshoe race in rural Vermont. On the morning of the race I had trouble finding the event location, which caused to me to arrive with only minutes to spare. While the other runners were in the pre-race meeting at the starting line, I was in my truck, hurriedly strapping on my snowshoes and organizing my gear. I got to the starting line just in time to join the others as they plunged into the snowy course. The race was a marathon, consisting of a few loops up and down a mountain with about 7,000 feet of elevation gain.
In the trail racing world, the distances are much more “ish” than what would be acceptable in road races. A marathon might be 24 miles or it might be 28 miles…it might be 26.2. Had I been at the pre-race meeting, I would have known that this “marathon” was about 27 miles and, perhaps more importantly, I would have known that it was 4 loops. When I left the starting line, I was thoroughly convinced, for some reason, that we were doing three loops and I adjusted my pace accordingly.
Shortly after starting my second loop, I moved into second place and 20 minutes later I took over the first place runner and was in the lead. As I started my third loop, still in first place, I thought the distance seemed off. Doing the math, it seemed that the race would be about 21 miles. Too short? But there were other variables to consider. My watch had lost satellite connection a few times; there was the “ish” nature of the mileage; and just two weeks earlier I had run a “marathon” that was 22.5 miles.
It never occurred to me that I may have been wrong about the number of loops.
I really pushed it on the third loop, emptying the tank. I wanted to make sure the guy behind me couldn’t get close enough to surge past me on the long downhill to the finish. My legs burned and started ever so slightly to cramp. “Good thing I’m almost done,” I thought. I sprinted across the line, victorious! Only, I wasn’t. After one volunteer said, “This has to be a course record,” another asked, skeptically, “You did four loops?” My heart sank. “Uh, I thought it was three?” I had already taken off my timing band, so I snatched it back and headed back out on the course. I could feel my legs starting to cramp as I made one of the first big climbs. “I didn’t save anything for this loop,” I thought. “How am I going to hold on to this lead? Can I even finish?”
I’ll come back to the snowshoe race in a bit.
You may not have made the same mistake I made because you’re probably smarter than I am, but certainly in a training run or a race, you’ve also felt spent and wondered if you could hold on to your pace, place, or avoid a DNF. And whether out loud or in your head, you began a narrative, like I did, full of questions and doubt. A growing body of research is showing that if we switch that to a positive narration, or “positive self-talk”, we may actually be able to improve our physical endurance and push through the tough times.
In his excellent new book, Endure, author Alex Hutchinson shares an experiment conducted by Samuele Marcora, a professor at the University of Kent. He and his colleagues had twenty-four volunteers complete a cycling test to exhaustion, then gave half of them some basic instructions on how to use positive self-talk. The self talk group were taught to use phrases early on in their ride, simple mantras like, “Feeling good.” They were also taught to use other phrases for later in the ride when it was tough going, things like, “Push through this!” The group practiced using these phrases, keeping the ones that seemed to help and discarding those that didn’t. Two weeks later, the entire group of cyclists again rode to exhaustion. Amazingly, the group that used positive self-talk lasted 18% longer than the cyclists who were not trained to use self-talk. Additionally, their rating of perceived exhaustion climbed more slowly throughout the test. The self-talk group quite literally talked themselves into lasting longer.
A key point here is that the self-talk group practiced. In fact, some of the cyclists who were not in the self-talk group reported using some self-talk in the second trial, but it wasn’t thoughtful and consistent and therefore had little impact.
Here’s how you can develop your own self-talk phrases:
•Select 2-3 phrases to use when your run or race is going well (e.g. “Feeling strong”).
•Select 2-3 phrases to use when your run or race is not going well (e.g. “Push through this”).
•Consider phrases for multiple scenarios (e.g. “I’m a strong climber”).
•Practice Self-Talk on long runs. Try all your phrases. Keep the ones you like.
And that snowshoe race? Fortunately, I had discovered self-talk a few weeks before the race and had some phrases designed for that specific event, specifically the clmbing. As I repeated my phrases, my perception of the race began to change and I felt more confident in my ability to hold on. I pushed through the pain, the cramps subsided, and I managed to win.
Though this was not part of the study, there is one additional tip I would like to add. As much as possible, I try to ground my self-talk phrases in my training. In other words, when I say, “I’m a climber,” I am reminding myself of a truth (I climbed over 300,000 feet last year). If I tell myself, “You’re prepared for this,” I’m usually telling the truth. Positive Self Talk is a useful tool for endurance, but it can’t completely replace the other important pieces of your training. You should not plan to skip training and just try to talk yourself through a marathon. It’s simply one tool among many.
If you use Positive Self Talk, I’d love to hear about it!