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When it comes to achieving fitness goals, the voice in your head matters

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The idea that self-talk makes a difference has long been a platitude. But over the past decade, that claim has finally been put to the test in randomized, placebo-controlled trials and has been adopted with flying colors.

Neil Hall / Reuters

A glance into the head of a novice runner during one of psychology researcher Noel Brick’s recent studies reveals a familiar refrain.

“Why am I doing this?” wonders the runner. “Why am I going into it?” I hate it, I hate running! Why am I doing it? “

We all have a chatty internal monologue in our heads, and that voice is often critical to a degree that seems absurd when we see the written words. We sweep it away but, as two new books argue (and as sports psychologists have been trying to convince us for decades), the words in our heads matter. As it turns out, learning to change that internal monologue can improve your physical performance just as safely and tangibly as going to the gym.

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Brick, a researcher at the University of Ulster in the UK, published The Genius of Athletes: What World Class Competitors Know That Can Change Your Life with co-author Scott Douglas earlier this month. It is a practical guide to the tools of sports psychology, suitable for a general audience and not necessarily athletic, covering topics such as goal setting, focus, self-confidence and fear of failure. And it turns out that all of these tools depend on effective self-talk.

The idea that autosuggestion makes all the difference – that the novice runner would go faster if she said to herself “You can do it!” “- is a long-standing platitude. But over the past decade, that claim has finally been put to the test in randomized, placebo-controlled trials and has been adopted with flying colors. A 2016 study led by Stephen Cheung of Brock University, for example, saw endurance increase by 39% in a group of cyclists who received autoconversation training on handling hot conditions before completing a journey to exhaustion in a thermal chamber.

The Brick and Douglas offer a step-by-step guide to mastering your self-talk, starting with identifying your goals, and then determining what kind of self-talk you need to achieve them. This is a key point, as not all situations require an internal rah-rah cheerleader. If you’re trying to hit a fastball or serve an ace, you’d better have a self-talk that focuses on technique or reduces anxiety.

In practice, this distinction can be difficult to observe in those who have not honed their self-talk game. A Danish study published earlier this year found that the most characteristic sentiment in the inner discourse of amateur marathon runners was “What am I going to do later today?” “While for badminton players it was” I’m going to lose. ” “

But there’s a lot more to talking to yourself than thinking positively or remembering to keep an eye on the wheel. These nuances are the subjects of Ethan Kross’s book Chatter: The voice in our head, why it matters and how to use it, which was released in January.

As director of the University of Michigan’s Emotion & Self Control Lab, Kross has studied both how negative self-talk gets in the way of us and what are the most effective ways to defuse these spirals of negativity.

For starters, Kross suggests switching your internal voice from first person to second person or even using your own name, a trick that helps generate distance and gives you perspective on what might otherwise seem like an issue. crushing. It’s the self-talk equivalent of imagining the advice you would give a friend in the same situation, and it helps you see a stressful situation as a challenge rather than a threat. Enough on, a study found that simply passing phrases like “I can do this!” “To” You can do it! »Improved performance in a 10 km cycle race by 2.4 percent.

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All of these changes take time and practice to become established – and even then, don’t expect an endless stream of mental sun and rainbows. Negative thoughts will always arise; to remedy this, Kross suggests changing “What if? “To” So what? Whatever answer the voice in your head suggests, it probably won’t be as bad as you feared.

Alex Hutchinson is the author of Endure: mind, body, and the strangely elastic limits of human performance. Follow him on twitter @sweatscience.

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