Talking Yourself Out of Exhaustion: Self-Talk and Endurance Performance

Introduction

I’ve often given myself positive self-talk after hard training. “Good work Pete”, “Strong”, “looking good” etc have always given me a boost after training. Not something I do aroung too many others, but it does lift me when I do it. The sports psych people also advocate positive self-talk during training. However, little research to date has actually examined the effect of positive self-talk on performance. Here is some research suggesting that positive self-talk during training can help during hard endurance performance in events.

 

The Research

24 (15 males, 9 females) recreationally-trained people (24.6±7.5 years; VO2max = 52.3±8.7 ml/kg/min; Peak Power Output on Bike = 313±69 watts) acted as volunteers. They all trained in individual or team sports at least twice a week and for 83.3±29.3 minutes per session. All participants did an initial bike test to exhaustion starting at 50 watts then increasing workload 50 watts every 2 minutes till cadence dropped to less than 60 rpm for 5 consecutive seconds. Oxygen consumption, power output in watts, rating of perceived exertion (RPE) on a 1-10 scale, and heart rates were measured throughout. On two more occasions, the subjects visited the lab. On the first subsequent visit they warmed up on the bike at 40% of peak power output (PPO) for three minutes as a warm-up then had to ride for as long as they could at 80% PPO. Cadence and RPE (1-10 scale) were monitored throughout at one-minute intervals with time to exhaustion (seconds) at 80% PPO used as the measure of endurance performance. After the second lab visit, subjects were then randomly allocated to a self-talk training group or a control group that maintained normal training. The self-talk training group also maintained their physical training but spent 30 minutes after the second lab visit learning about self-talk and developing four of their own self-talk statements such as “feeling good”, “push through this”, ” doing well” etc. They were then instructed to practice self-talk during their normal training for the next two weeks after which the same bike test was conducted on all volunteers.

The Results

Time to exhaustion (seconds) improved significantly from 637±201 to 750±295 in the self-talk trained group with no change in the control group. Cadence (rpm) was also significantly higher after two weeks of training (81.2±9.0 versus 77.5±9.4) in the self-talk trained group with no change in average rpm in the control group who did no self-talk training. Interestingly, half way through the final test, the self-talk trained group also perceived their effort to be lower than their pre-training result (7.3±0.6 versus 6.4±0.8) with again no change in this value in the control group who did no self-talk training.

The So What?

This British study is one of the first to show that positive self-talk reduces rating of perceived exertion and improves endurance performance. I know many high-performance athletes who use this technique when the going gets tough in races. This research also highlights that perception of effort (how hard we feel we are going) may be ultimately determine endurance performance. That is, that the mind controls the body. Bottom line here is that when the going gets tough in training, audibly tell yourself you are “feeling good”, “going strong”, or whatever self-talk works for you. Practice it in training so that when racing it just happens.

Source: Blanchfield, A. and others (2013) Talking yourself out of exhaustion: The effects of self-talk on endurance performance.  Medicine and Science in Sports & Exercise (Published ahead of print).