The University of Wales study found that people were more likely to use self-talk during races or competition than in training, which suggests that we use mantras more to get the best out of ourselves than as a diversion.
Thompson used the phrase 'I can, I am' when she ran a marathon recently. "I came up with those words to counter doubts - both mine and other people's - that I couldn't make it," she explains. "It was short and sweet, but powerful."
Your own mantra needs to have resonance, too. But should it merely act as a potted pep talk, or can it be a way of reminding yourself of important cues: to maintain a high cadence, for example, or keep your head up?
"The content of self-talk can be motivational, as in 'Come on, you can do this'," says Lane. "Or it can be instructional: 'I will focus on relaxing my arms'." A recent study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research suggests that both can work equally well: subjects who gave themselves either motivational or instructional cues prior to a stationary vertical jump reached higher than those who did neither.
Lane recommends formulating what he calls an 'if-then' plan when devising your self-talk statements. "The beauty of if-then plans is that they put the problem beside the solution," he explains. "So when the problem occurs, the solution is already in the mindset of the runner."
Let's say, for example, that you're worrying about completing the distance in an upcoming race: you know you're going to get tired and that it will hurt. "It's important to have a positive strategy for coping with the fatigue," says Lane.
"Tiredness tends to come in waves during endurance running and intense feelings of physical tiredness can pass. I suggest that runners focus on their technique, which is largely under their own control." You might therefore tell yourself 'If I am feeling tired, then I will focus on my technique', and come up with a good instructional cue to assist you.
One that stayed in my head after reading Christopher McDougall's Born to Run (£8.99, Profile Books) was inspirational ultra runner Caballo Blanco's mantra 'Easy, light, smooth, fast'. These are all great instructions for running with good form. "You start with easy, because if that's all you manage, that's not so bad," he tells McDougall.
I always find that counting '1,2,3...1,2,3' in a sort of waltz rhythm, helps me to pick up my cadence and, more often than not, gain pace. Thompson points out that, along with the rhythm, the visual imagery of waltzing conjures up the right sensations of fluid, sweeping movements.
This just goes to show that if you're using words, you need to choose them carefully. Thompson gives the example of a cyclist who was struggling with hill climbing and came up with the mantra 'Slow and steady' to encourage himself to keep going. "But constantly repeating the word 'slow' is like actually instructing yourself to decrease your speed," she explains. So the cyclist had to change it to 'Strong and steady'.
But what about deliberate negative self-talk? Can criticising or goading yourself ever work as a challenge to raise your game? Lane believes so: "People can say negative things to themselves to activate arousal [psyche themselves up]. It can act as a warning signal that unless a great deal of effort is made, performance will be poor."
Copy the legends
Ultra runner Scott Jurek used the mantra 'This is what you came for' when he ran in the 2010 24-Hour World Championships (he placed second and broke the US record). "It kept me focused on how badly I wanted the US record and all the work I had done to get there," he says. "By using the mantra, I was able to break through the pain and discomfort, finding another space to reside in while my body kept forward momentum around the 1.4K loop for 165.7 miles."
Note that despite Jurek's focus on winning and breaking records, his mantra did not contain these words. According to Thompson, ultimatums like 'I must reach the finish line', which are laden with obligation and an accompanying fear of failure, don't make good mantras. 'I will win', while short and sweet, presents problems, too: "You can only be in command of your own performance, not that of others in the race, so you don't have any power over who reaches the finish line first," she points out. Exactly what my coach told me back in 1995.
Mantra Maker: Put Together Your Perfect Phrase
1. Keep it short
Your mantra should be an affirmation, not a novel. "When you're tired, you don't want something elaborate," says sports psychologist Stephen Walker (drstephenwalker.com). "It's too hard to remember." So keep it limited to five seconds or less.
2. Stay positive
Think of the problem you're trying to counteract and turn it around. "If you're feeling weak, your mantra should be 'I am strong'," says Walker.
3. Make it energetic
Your mantra should centre on action verbs or strong adjectives, not abstract phrases, says Robert J Bell, consultant of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. Look for words that convey energy, like 'fast', 'strong' or 'power'.
4. Embed instructions
Use the mantra to remind yourself what you plan to do or how you want to feel as you're running, says Walker. Try 'Now is the time - go for it' or 'Run relaxed, finish strong'.
5. Build it, believe it, become it
Choose one word from each of the four lettered rows to create a get-it-done power chant:
A. Run; Go; Stride; Sprint; Be
B. Strong; Fast; Quick; Light; Fierce
C. Think; Feel; Embrace; Be; Hold
D. Power; Speed; Brave; Bold; Courage
Words: Christine Aschwanden