Turn Up the (Positive) Volume

Three-time Olympic champion Marnie McBean was on CBC radio recently talking about her new book, The Power of More, which is all about taking small steps to achieve big goals. She suggested that we become vulnerable to doubt and discouragement when we have a rough training day or don’t feel things are going our way. In these dark moments our positive outlook and belief in ourselves can be drowned out by negative self-talk. So as she says, maintaining motivation when we’re slumping is often a matter of “volume control.” In other words, it’s about turning up the good and turning down the suck (to borrow a phrase from the Canadian cult classic, Fubar).

Why is this so important? Our brains are not inclined to quietude – they’re full of idle chatter and commentary on, well, pretty near everything. We’re generally not aware of these inner voices, but they nevertheless influence how we perform and experience the world (e.g., work, school, romance, sport). For example, sometimes our self-talk helps us along (“I rock! Keep it up!”), while other times it holds us back or keeps us stuck (“I suck so why even try”).

Once you become aware of your own mental chatter in a particular situation, you can judge how it’s working for you and adjust the content/volume accordingly. And recognizing and adjusting your self-talk can make all the difference on race day – or any other day for that matter. In fact, psychological research shows that engaging in positive self-talk improves sport performance by psyching us up and/or cueing us for success.

Which isn’t exactly a new concept. After all, The Little Engine that Could, a stone cold classic of children’s literature and a perennial source of inspiration for people of all ages, was first published in 1930 and versions of the story can be traced back to the early 1900s. But since then scientific research has validated and deepened our awareness of the connection between thought and behavior, mind and body.

So how can you harness these data to increase your chances of running a PB in Ottawa this May? Know when negative self-talk is likely to strike and be prepared to counter it. For example, when running a long hill, running into the wind, or when your legs start to feel like jelly. Instead of interpreting muscle soreness or fatigue as signs of failure, try telling yourself “I’ve felt tired before and I’ve pulled through. I’m going to make it”. As one Ottawa running coach recommended to his group before a recent race, during that last tough stretch it’s time to think “I’m a lean, mean, running machine.”

Also, be sure to practice positive self-talk ahead of time. Come up with a few short phrases of encouragement and rehearse them during training runs. Print them off and stick them on your fridge so you see them whenever you reach for the milk. Carry them around with you in your pocket. Sleep with them under your pillow. Do whatever you need to do so that when the going gets tough, the thought that automatically springs to mind is “I’ve trained hard and I know I can do this. I’m running my race!”