I am running fast and strong...I am running fast and strong... As I climb an interminable hill for the third time in a punishing 10K race, the truth may be anything but. However, the words fit in nicely with the rhythm of my feet and if I tell myself I'm running well, then perhaps I'll believe it.
It seems logical. After all, if we tell ourselves we're no good, or that we can't do it, we tend to prove ourselves right. In one study, published in the Journal of Sport Behaviour (March 1995), subjects were randomly assigned to one of two groups taking part in a dart-throwing test.
Both groups were told to aim for the bullseye on each of their 15 throws, but the first group were asked to tell themselves 'You cannot do it' each time they let the dart go, while the second group said 'You can do it'. The results showed significantly greater accuracy in the can-do group.
"There is lots of evidence showing that what we say to ourselves can influence how we feel and how we perform in sport," says Andy Lane, professor of sport psychology at the University of Wolverhampton. Mental performance coach Midgie Thompson (brightfuturescoaching.com) agrees: "Phrases like 'This is tough' and 'I'm tired' can have a physical effect on the body, while telling yourself 'I can do this' or 'I'm strong' can have the opposite effect."
'Self-talk' yourself strong
Sport psychologists use the term 'self-talk' to describe what we say to ourselves before or during training and competition, and studies suggest that positive self-talk can reduce anxiety, increase effort and boost self-confidence - all of which can have a knock-on effect on performance.
I sometimes talk to myself as if I'm an encouraging outsider when I'm struggling or suffering on a run. It's what Thompson calls the 'cheerleader on your shoulder' approach. While it can be useful, the mind has a tendency to wander off when you're just chatting to yourself (it's known as dissociative conversational chatter). And that's what makes the mantra so powerful.
"A mantra is a mental device - a word or phrase - that we can fix upon to drive our attention inwards," explains yoga teacher and runner Laura Denham-Jones (yogaforrunners.co.uk). "The word mantra comes from the Sanskrit 'man', meaning to think, and 'tra' meaning tool. It's a thought or utterance that can have real influence."
The key to powerful self-talk and a meaningful mantra is making it relevant and specific to your needs. "Start by identifying where you feel there is room for improvement," advises Lane. "If, for example, your problem is having negative thoughts, then develop self-talk statements to counter these. This can be difficult to do on your own, so sharing the task with a group of running buddies or a coach can be useful."
When I ran my second 26.2-miler 16 years ago, my coach sat down with all the marathoners in the group and did just this, helping us to pinpoint our fears or worries and develop an appropriate mantra. My issue was spending too much time worrying about being beaten by my rivals, and I came out of the clubhouse clutching a piece of paper simply saying 'I will run my own race'. Today, of course, I could even record the mantra and drum it into my head using my MP3 player.
According to Thompson, the strength of a mantra lies in its length, which should be brief, and its content, which should be simple and positive. "It needs to be something that doesn't require too much effort to repeat or remember," adds Denham-Jones. "I sometimes just use the word yes."
As with goal-setting, your self-talk needs to be grounded in reality - there's no point telling yourself you can win the London Marathon if it's patently impossible. But there's certainly no harm in telling yourself that you're running well or that you're going to make it to the finish.
Research from the University of Wales suggests that people following solo pursuits, like running, employ self-talk more than those in group activities or team games. There's more opportunity to turn your attention inwards when it's just you and the road to think about.
The repetitive, almost meditative nature of a mantra can act as a tool to focus your mind on the task at hand (an attentional strategy known as association). But it can also be a device to take your mind off your running and, possibly, the accompanying effort or discomfort (dissociation).
"I liken it to when a young child is crying," says Thompson. "You distract them with something else and then they're giggling the next minute."
On the next page: Find the words that will work for you and mantras of the running greats.