In sports psychology, we talk a lot about positive self-talk when teaching athletes to train, manage and control their internal chat. We hone in on being optimistic, and if it’s not, we encourage athletes to always pull their thoughts back to being optimistic. But a lot of sport psychology folks aren’t ultra runners or even endurance athletes and aren’t intimate with the unique psychological rigors of going really long. As an athlete, optimism should always be your aspiration, and its important to create a training process to generate this type of mind set, but in the world of endurance sports we know that positive isn’t always possible for the long haul.
When I first started learning about and using positive self-talk in my training and racing as a triathlete, I started at the beginning—noticing my general dialogue in various aspects of my athletic life. I then implemented positive self-talk words and phrases to replace the negative, as well as affirmations and imagery I designed over time. After several weeks of consistent focused mental training I noticed that in events or training sessions of a few hours or shorter I could remain positive, for the most part. But carrying this process into Ironman events, 100-mile ultra running races, or continuous or staged multi-day races, remaining positive was virtually impossible unless I flat out lied to myself.
Using word cues such as, “I am light and strong” just doesn’t sit right when you are at mile 85 of a 100-mile running race shuffling through some of the toughest stretch of trail in the country in the middle of the night, and you just clipped your blistered big toe on a rock and endo-ed into the creek because your hip flexors are too shot to lift your feet any higher than a shuffle. In situations like this, somehow even “patience,” seems like a bunch of crap.
You don’t need 85 miles of running behind you to get to this particular head space; you can thwart your positive thoughts on a long training jaunt or in a weary 8 miler if it’s just not your day. In any case, if you can’t seem to get positive, what do you do? You get rational. Rational basically means lucid, balanced, coherent, or sane. If “positive” is eluding you, isn’t sanity a pretty good second choice?
Here’s what your rational voice might look like.
Thought: “I’m so tired, I’m not sure I can keep going.”
Thought stopping cue: “STOP!”
Replace negative thought with rational thought: “Walk and eat a gel packet,” or, “Walk to the next telephone pole, stretch, then start running slowly.”
Rational self-talk speaks to the essential aspects of how you can stay in the game: eating, drinking, proper pacing, negotiating terrain and just generally continuing to move forward. The key is that it prevents your mind from going to the negative. That is our goal. Rational self-talk gives your body instructions when it wants to quit. A client who frequently uses rational talk commented, “I pick a spot on the trail and I tell myself I will return to full mental and physical peak at that point. This helps me a lot rather that trying to turn an emotion on a dime, which can become a bit of a punching bag sometimes.”
In longer events or in events of any distance that challenge your fitness level, the body wants to quit when the going gets really tough. The mind must step in to prod the body forward. The body waits for a weakness to allow it to slow, but the mind can’t allow for it. Your mind propels. If you can’t reach for positive to squelch the negative demons, reach for rational—your body will thank you and you’ll keep the negative thoughts at bay.
Here are some more rational self-talk words and phrases that are helpful:
“Slow your pace.”
“Pump your arms on this hill.”
“Pick up your feet.”
“Take an electrolyte tablet in 3 minutes.”
“Start running at the next tree.”
“Stay with me.”
I have used rational self-talk in all of my Ironman races and have carried that process into many one and multi-day ultra running events and adventure races. I have never taken for granted that it will be there, I have trained it to be there—just like my positive self-talk. Rational self-talk, just like positive self-talk, can offer you satisfying event experiences. It can keep you present to your race strategy. Used in conjunction with your positive self-talk, it is a powerful tool for your mental toolbox.
Terri Schneider is a coach, sport psychology consultant, speaker, writer and multi-sport endurance athlete. Visit Terri at www.terrischneider.net.