When the gun goes off and you set out on your racing journey the biggest, the most unrelenting competitor is not always the terrain, the distance, or the racers next to you. It’s the voice in your head. That voice can have a big impact on your performance, for better or for worse. If you fall prey to the persuasive power of negative thoughts you’ll take yourself out of the race before any physical limitation has the chance to. Actively trying to avoid thinking certain thoughts will almost always prove to be a fruitless effort. In fact, there’s a very famous study performed on this exact topic. The more you try not to think about something, the more often those thoughts will enter your mind in some form of tortuous irony. While you cannot completely outrun the experience of negative self-talk, you can choose not to interact with it.
Treat Negative Thoughts as a Cue
It’s a common reaction to respond to negative thoughts as a prediction of a bad race to come. Many athletes view an unproductive thought spiral as the point of no return. It’s as if we think negative self-talk and a desirable race result are mutually exclusive which is simply not true. Instead of trying to hide from negative self-talk, anticipate it and plan for it. Use negative thoughts as a cue to shift your attention to something more productive and within your control. If your mind starts to fixate on how bad your legs feel, use that as a cue to redirect your attention to the next aid station where you’re going to see your crew or eat a great snack. If you start to become preoccupied with how many miles are left in the race, shift your attention to the present by focusing on your breath. Every athlete will experience negative self-talk during a race. Expect it and plan for how you’re going to respond.
Implement Productive Distractions
One of my least favorite phrases is “just shut your brain off.” There’s no better way to frustrate a fatigued brain than by giving it an impossible task. Every second of the day that we are awake, we are experiencing thoughts. Your brain yearns to be engaged and if you don’t give it something to do, it will take matters into its own hands – which isn’t always a pleasant experience. While you can’t just tell your brain to sit quietly in the corner and do nothing, you can give it a task that is more productive. If you find your mind wandering to unwanted places, take back control. Some examples of positive distractions are counting your steps, repeating a mantra or striking up a conversation with the runner next to you.
Challenge and Reframe
Self-talk is made up of stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves. Most often, our negative self-talk involves projections about things that haven’t even happened yet (for instance, I’m going to fall apart at mile 80) or that aren’t even true (I’m not strong enough, there’s no way I can do this). When these types of thoughts start to flood your mind, challenge their validity. Recall a time that proves your narrative wrong. Once you recognize the negative self-talk doesn’t have much ground to stand on, reframe your perspective. When you do, thoughts like “this is too hard” become “this is what I came here for and I want to challenge myself.”
When you set out to take on the difficult challenge of pushing your physical limitations, negative self-talk will happen. Think of it as a form of self-preservation and your mind likely has good intentions. Just because the unproductive internal dialogue is there doesn’t mean we must listen. Our thoughts only possess the power that we afford them, and there’s always a way to talk back.
Addie is a professional ultra trail runner, coach, and sport psychology consultant helping athletes of all ages and abilities to prepare for the mental demands of competing through her practice, Strive Mental Performance.