There is an old Cherokee legend known as 'the tale of the two wolves' that is a good reminder to always monitor what you tell yourself, as it will have consequences on running performance and life in general.A grandfather explains to his warrior grandson that there are two wolves within each of us: One wolf is positive and beneficial, while the other wolf is negative and destructive. These two wolves fight for control over us. The grandson is curious and asks, "Which wolf will win?" The grandfather replies, "The one you feed."
It has been well established that our internal dialogue can have a large effect on our feelings and performance. One meta-analysis of 32 previously published sports psychology studies confirmed that positive self-talk can produce significant improvements in sports performance. Published in July 2011 in Perspectives on Psychological Science. the lead author Dr. Antonis Hatzigeorgiadis stated, "The mind guides action. If we succeed in regulating our thoughts, then this will help our behaviour."
Another study published in 2014 in Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise, looked at the effects of self-talk on endurance performances. 24 volunteers were given a cycling test to exhaustion, half of them were then given a two week self-talk intervention while the other were not. In a second cycling test to exhaustion that followed, the self-talk group lasted 18% longer than the previous test while the control group stayed the same. The self-talk group also reported a slower increase in their rating of perceived effort.
To achieve this improvement, the participants chose four favourite motivational statements: two for early stages of exercise, such as "feeling good" and two for later stages such as "push through this". Over the next couple of weeks these statements were used during their exercise sessions. An interesting finding was that 10 of the 12 controls also reported using self-talk during the tests, however without the same improvements. These results suggest that being deliberate about what phrases you use and using them during training may provide the most benefits and aid in preventing negative self-talk such as "I can't keep going" - which can have just as significant an effect on decreasing performance and increasing perceived effort.
Perceived effort is the key to improved endurance. Two recent models on fatigue have focused more on the mental rather than physiological limiters of endurance.
The Central Governor model, proposed by Professor Tim Noakes, theorises that the point in the race (or training) when you think you’ve given everything you’ve got is actually a signal or response from the brain to slow down to preserve health, rather than a physiological reality. In actuality, Noakes believes you have more to give physically when this happens.
The psychobiological model of endurance performance proposes that the perception of effort is the ultimate determinant of endurance performance. Therefore, any physiological or psychological factor affecting the perception of effort will affect endurance performance.
Positive self-talk feeds the good wolf and is beneficial. Negative self-talk feeds the bad wolf and is destructive.
How To Feel The Good Wolf
So how do you go about feeding the right wolf? The first step is to realise when you are feeding the bad wolf and replace any negative thoughts with positive ones. For example I was recently on a long hilly run with a good running buddy and I brought up the topic of running a marathon. I often say I'll run one but have never gotten around to it (although I've run around 15 ultramarathons). I suggested what I thought was a realistic goal time and was surprised when he suggested I could run a time 10-20 minutes quicker. My first thought was to just dismiss his suggestion, thinking it was way beyond my capabilities. Then I realised that his opinion was possibly more informed than my own. After all, he has run a few marathons, is an exceptional runner himself and has run with me enough to have an informed opinion on how well I could do. I was also running quite well on this occasion, feeling good on a long ascent that has caused me problems before. Perhaps he was right. Sometimes you need an outside source to give those negative thoughts a shove before you can replace them with something positive and feed the good wolf. A good running friend or coach will often do this for you.
When starting out running, or coming back from some time off, the bad wolf will often want you to stay in bed on a cold morning (and he will curl up at your feet). The more you feed a wolf the stronger they get and the harder it will be for the opposing wolf to influence your thoughts. At times, just getting out the door and going for a run is all that is needed to feed the good wolf. If you have committed to a training plan then every time you complete a session remind yourself that you are feeding the good wolf.
It's not always as easy as it sounds - and quite often you don't realise at the time that you may be feeding the bad wolf - but with practice and the right self-talk you can feed the right wolf and see your performance in running (and everyday life) improve.
* If you happen to see a real wolf during your run, do not take this advice as suggesting that positive self-talk is your best option... just run faster.