Self-Talk for Ultramarathoners

Two years ago, I wrote about some research showing that simple lessons in motivational self-talk enabled subjects to pedal 18 percent longer in a time-to-exhaustion cycling test. It was a neat laboratory demonstration of the effectiveness of a standard sports psychology tool – and what was most surprising to me was that no one had done this type of experiment 30 years earlier. Plenty of athletes swear by sports psych techniques like this, but there’s been very little effort to test them under controlled conditions.Of course, what works in the lab doesn’t always work in the real world. At the Endurance Research Conference earlier this month, University of Kent researchers Alister McCormick, Carla Meijen, and Samuele Marcora presented a progress report on an ongoing randomised study of self-talk training prior to a real ultramarathon – a self-supported 100K overnight race, which is exactly the kind of grueling event where you might expect self-talk (whether positive or negative) to have the biggest effect on performance.

So far, the researchers have studied 21 competitors, randomised into two groups. One group received some simple instruction on how to use motivational self-talk “to counter thoughts about withdrawing effort, and in response to critical moments (e.g. getting lost),” with different statements chosen for use at different parts of the race (e.g. “Feeling good!” early in the race, versus “Push through this!” later in the race). The other group was taught to “use a concentration grid to develop their concentration.” This is a key point: both groups received a psychological intervention that they could reasonably believe would enhance their performance.The self-talk runners tested so far have finished an average of 25 minutes faster than the control group, which translates into an effect size of 0.30. In practice, that means there’s a 56 percent chance that the self-talk is boosting performance, a 27 percent chance it’s not doing anything, and a 17 percent chance it’s harming performance. Again, this is just a progress report: the researchers plan to continue collecting data in future editions of the race to get a bigger data set.

While the results are promising, the most important point to me is that they’re actually doing the study. As I’ve written in previous columns, I think sports psychology has a greatly underappreciated potential to improve performance. But the only way to find out which techniques (if any) actually work is to test them properly, and that’s what is finally happening.

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