I tell my athletes, everyone has negative thoughts; it is what we do with the negative thoughts that separate the elite thinkers from the average thinkers in sport.  This is important to understand.  We all have negative thoughts, no one is immune.  The first step is to understand this and realize avoidance is not the target.  And, when we do have these thoughts it doesn’t mean we are not mentally strong.  The mentally strong have trained and perfected how to respond to challenging times, which inevitably produce negative feelings.  So the take home here is do not beat yourself up if you have bad thoughts during your performance, EXPECT IT and then MODIFY IT.

Modifying or changing the meaning of this negative self-talk is the key. When you are feeling tired or challenged in training or a race, this inner voice can be very negative. It can question what you are doing, talk you out of keeping going, and become a general nuisance. Positive self-talk is needed when feeling challenged.

Endurance racing and training involves coping with fatigue, which can be learned; you can turn the voice off and you can turn from negative to positive. First, think back to those challenging times when you felt tired and had bad legs. Think of what you said to yourself. Write it down. The next step is to change the negative self-statements into positive self-statements.

For example, consider the negative self-statement, ‘My legs have gone. I will have to slow down’. This relationship between feeling tired and what to do about these feelings is clearly terminal for performance. We need to change both parts of this self-statement. Rather than saying ‘my legs have gone’ we need to change this to a transient statement such as ‘my legs are tired’. This is more likely to be true in any case. Tiredness tends to come in waves during endurance events and intense feelings of physical tiredness can pass.

It is also important to change the strategy for dealing with challenging times. I suggest that runners should focus on their technique and running relaxed when feeling tired. Focusing on technique and relaxation is a good strategy as it is largely under the control of the athlete. If the runner focuses all of their attention on relaxed technique, this can detract attention from sensations of fatigue. The outcome is a much more positive self-statement: ‘My legs are feeling tired, so I will concentrate on relaxed technique to make them more efficient.’

A good way of using self-talk is to try to anticipate difficult moments in competition or in training. Develop self-talk scripts to change negative scenarios to positive ones. Use a combination of imagery and self-talk to create situations in which you experience unpleasant emotions, and see yourself deal successfully with these situations, using positive self-talk to control the inner voice in your head that can be negative.

We must also not confuse difficulty with failure.  I see this all the time when workouts are challenging or difficult for one of my athletes.  Because the workout or race is challenging, the thought process immediately goes to, “I am not good” or “I failed”.  The workout or race should be challenging and difficult.  So again, EXPECT IT and MODIFY IT.  I coach my athletes to look forward to negative talk because this allows them the opportunity to perform to the fullest.  You need to be challenged to be at your best. If you can view negative self talk as a positive opportunity and something NECESSARY for peak performance, a funny thing happens.  Once you have the awareness that negative talk is necessary, you expect it, you are ready for it, you will embrace it, and you will not back down  to the challenge.  Sounds funny, but it works!


Remember that psychological toughness is built on a firm platform of physical fitness. To enjoy racing and running, athletes need to have experienced repeated training bouts of specific race intensity and hard efforts. In the same way you train your body to cope with these demands of training, you also train your mind to think positively about difficult times and hard efforts.  

Hope this helps and would love to use comments on this page for you to list your positive mantras when things get challenging.


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Comment by charles sproson on September 12, 2011 at 4:05am

I just believe in my own ability. I know I can do anythiing I set my mind on, so once its underway, I clear my mind and fight the bad thougths with ones of happy places, soon all disapears and you are just one, running with the energy of the world. If you can attain this state through your worst moments, then you will always make your goal. Time becomes un-important, just getting to your finish is al that counts and usually you find your time is better than you thought it would be. This is how I have completed many Mountain Marathon events (2 day running events in the UK mountains wiht your shelter and food in a pack on your back) and my Bob Graham round - http://www.bobgrahamclub.co.uk/bobgrahamround.co.uk/ - and so on and so on.....


Comment by J-F lemay on September 11, 2011 at 5:53pm
I simply remember myself that despite all the goals and very hard challenges i put myself into........in the first place I RUN FOR FUN!!!! A shure shot...works every time!!!!
Comment by Brad Dye on September 11, 2011 at 1:40pm

My positive mantra is simple:  "I have never not made my mileage!"   (please overlook the double negative)

No matter the distance, in both racing and training, this simple phrase has enabled me to overcome the bad days and the hard miles.

When the day comes that I actually do not achieve my goal I guess I will have to readjust.  For now, this one does the trick!

Comment by Paul PAncoe on September 11, 2011 at 11:58am
This may sound weird , however it works. The last three miles of the San Francisco marathon were hell for me; I had nothing left. I imagined that my head was separate from my body. So if my body was hurting, since it was separate from me , I could just notice it and not get all caught up in it and keep going. I finished.
Comment by dean krakel on September 10, 2011 at 9:07pm
right on. i've had a week of that heaviness.
Comment by Lori Enlow on September 10, 2011 at 7:24pm
One trick I used on my first "trail" run with 2 friends...it was our first time on a real trail. We were to go 30 mi. We were totally unprepared mentally for it. We all had only done road and paved trails with slow rolling hills. Not strait up and down zig zag Northwest Arkansas mountain trail (they barely meet elevation requirements to be called mountains, but none-the-less). Anyway, songs kept coming to mind pertaining to how we felt. We'd belt 'em out as we ran...3 blind mice, Legs by zztop, Doctor Doctor, etc. That was the most miserable-fun run ever. Our picture as we crossed the finish line was frightening! We looked like we'd been attacked by grizzlies and I could barely walk for 3 days.
Comment by Bob on September 10, 2011 at 6:24pm

Great post, Eric! As someone who too readily falls prey to negative self-talk, I'm always interested in strategies to transform it. I became more aware of my own negative self-talk when I started running with others, because I observed the correlation between self-talk and performance. I've also observed a correlation between negative self-talk and being prone to injury. I'm not too sure what to make of this  (I certainly wouldn't diminish the "authenticity" of the injuries) and would love to hear others' thoughts.


Eric, you didn't introduce the term "mantra" until the last paragraph. Reminded me that in the past, I've found using a mantra to be helpful in displacing negative self-talk. The mantra did not need to be positive, it could just be neutral, like a phrase I repeated over and over. It's worked well for me, but somehow I've forgotten to use it the last couple of years! 

One other thing: In an endurance event, part of what happens to me is not just the feeling of my legs feeling tired, but feeling lightheaded, or having a weird feeling in my chest (especially true if it's hot and/or I go out too fast). As a 51-year old, I'll sometimes resign myself to a "better safe than sorry" attitude, and slow down or drop out. In some ways, this seems wise to me, but I also wonder if I had a more winning attitude if perhaps I wouldn't let these things slow me down. Thoughts?

Comment by Joseph Karrmann on September 10, 2011 at 4:43pm
I definitely agree that you need to be challenged to see your best. I'll tey and embrace and modify my negative self talk when I am racing now.
Comment by Lori Enlow on September 10, 2011 at 4:15pm
It's like a mental game for me. I try to figure out ways to beat my mind. It takes my focus off how I feel. I start focusing on my mind instead of my body and before long that dark physical cloud passes.

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