How Athletes Can Motivate With Healthy Self-Talk

by | Mar 16, 2023 | Mindset, Training

What do you say to yourself when you run? For most of us, we aren’t the nicest when the going gets tough. I realized after we talked to Rebecca Rusch on the Consummate Athlete Podcast and she dropped this knowledge bomb about self-talk that as a runner, I can be downright mean to myself. At least, that’s what I realize when I actually start paying attention and really getting meta, thinking about what I’m thinking. Just noticing that its happening can go a long way towards getting rid of it altogether.

I think what’s stood out to me most over the years is that even if you’re happy, negative self-talk can still creep in. It’s not just something that happens when things aren’t going your way, you’re having a bad week, or you’re depressed or anxious. It can happen even when things are great. In Let Your Mind Run: A Memoir of Thinking My Way to Victory, Olympian Deena Kastor wrote, “I’d always considered myself a happy, mostly cheerful person, but when I started paying attention to my thoughts, I was surprised to find there was a lot of negativity in my head…. I realized a good attitude went far beyond the general idea of staying positive. It was part of a discipline, a long-cultivated habit of building and sustaining a positive mind capable of turning every experience into fuel. ”

I think a big part of getting rid of negative self-talk isn’t trying to get rid of it, it’s actually trying to focus on the good, and sort of flood out the bad. If your brain is full of positive thoughts that you’re purposefully putting there, it’s a lot harder for the negative ones to find space. This is where a Ted Lasso-ian BELIEVE sign can help. Write a positive mantra (like BELIEVE) and put it somewhere you’ll see it before you head out on your runs, or think of a short one that you can write in Sharpie on your hand so you have an in-run reminder.

“For some people, it’s as simple as writing down some affirmations and practicing the mantras. ‘I will accept myself unconditionally and enjoy every day I have.’ ‘I will love the journey and be present along the way,’” writes David Roche in The Happy Runner: Love the Process, Get Faster, Run Longer. I like the very simple Kurt Vonnegut concept of just looking around during a run, when I feel my brain heading towards the negative, and thinking about everything that is going right in the moment that is allowing me to just be outside for this run. As he put it, “Please pause a moment, and then say out loud, “If this isn’t nice, what is?””

Roche is also a big fan of the ‘smile every mile’ school of running, and I have to admit, it’s amazing what forcing yourself to smile during a hard moment can do! If you’re in that dark place and no positive mantra is boosting you out of it, make yourself smile. Smiling shifts your brain chemistry, giving yourself a shot of dopamine. It helps you decrease stress, lift your mood, and even relieve pain. I’ve done this in a few ultras and it is seriously miraculous.

There’s also the practical: Whenever the negative thoughts start popping up, quickly do a body scan and make sure you’re hydrated and fed. Nothing brings out a bad mood or negative self-talk quite like a bonk.

Last thing when it comes to self-talk: If it’s coming up on every ride or every run, it may be time to assess what you’re training for, what your goals are, and how your life is generally playing out. You may want to chat with your coach or therapist. Maybe you’re struggling because the goals you’ve set are unrealistic for this point in your life, and it’s easy to spiral into the negative when you can’t meet your expectations. Maybe you need a break because you’re on the edge of burnout. Maybe your work or family life isn’t going great, and the only time you can let yourself really ‘feel’ is on the ride, in which case, this is the time to check in with a professional. The occasional negative self-talk is natural and ultimately not even a bad thing all the time—it can show us our weak spots, give us things to work on and hold us accountable—but if it’s happening all the time, you can get help!


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