Self Talk Can Be a Powerful Ally (Don’t Shut It Up)

A new study looks at how self-talk affects performance - the results are worth giving your inner voice a bigger megaphone.

Photo: Hannah DeWitt/Triathlete

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We all have an inner voice – one that keeps us on task (“take your nutrition”), helps us maintain proper technique (“drop your shoulders”), and questions our discomfort (“is this pain normal?”).

This inner voice – or self-talk, as it’s referred to in sport psychology – tends to arise naturally, especially in triathlon where we have a lot of time to think. Consider, for a moment, a training session or a race. What does your inner voice say when fatigue starts to set in? Perhaps it whispers, “This is hard.” As time passes, it may shout: “Alright, that’s enough – dial it back!” The natural tendency, when our body is pushed to its limit, is to slow our roll or quit altogether. But with a good amount of cognitive control, and the ability to harness our inner voice, we often encourage ourselves to “keep going.”

Does self-talk actually benefit endurance performance?

The answer has generally been yes. There are, however, a couple caveats.

First, the research in endurance sports has largely focused on strategic self-talk interventions, where athletes are taught how and when to use self-talk. For example, they may be trained to say “I can do this” or “finish strong” when they rate their perceived exertion as a 9 out of 10. While this study design has several benefits, it doesn’t describe the typical endurance athlete – the one who isn’t prescribed self-talk phrases and instead engages in self-generated, organic self-talk (“Holy cow, this is brutal. I need this to be over. No, stop that! You can do this. Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go”). Since organic self-talk is the most common variety among endurance athletes, it definitely warrants some attention.

Second, most of the research has been correlational, suggesting that self-talk is associated with better performance, but doesn’t necessarily cause it. It may be that the athletes who perform better also tend to have a chatty inner voice. Or, there may be a third factor, such as the ability to focus, that impacts both self-talk frequency and performance. One way to establish causation is to run interference; in this case, disrupt the brain’s ability to produce inner speech by forcing it to focus on another task.

So, to address these caveats, researchers asked: What happens to cycling performance when we interfere with our naturally-occurring inner voice?

Self-talk in triathlon
Self-talk just might be a triathlete’s secret weapon. (Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

A study on self-talk in sport

Here’s the study: Participants (healthy individuals who exercised at least twice a week) were presented with six letters or numbers, presented sequentially on a screen. They then had to complete an interference task (or no task, for the control trials) that challenged their memory, while cycling as fast as possible for 1 minute on a stationary bike. Cycling performance was measured by distance traveled during the interval.

For the verbal interference task, participants were asked to remember the letters and numbers that flashed on the screen. For the visuospatial interference task, participants were asked to remember the locations of the letters and numbers on the screen. Both memory tasks were designed to challenge cognition, potentially diverting attention away from the physical task at hand (i.e. cycling fast).


Well, verbal interference did indeed impair performance, but only slightly. The data wasn’t entirely convincing, so the researchers conducted a second experiment with a more cognitively demanding, continuous interference task. They hypothesized that if we use inner speech to perform better, and a small amount of cognitive interference has a somewhat negative effect on performance, then a greater amount of interference should have an even worse effect on performance. The second experiment confirmed this hypothesis.

Yet again, we have evidence that the mind affects the body and self-talk, specifically, benefits performance.

How to find your inner voice

So, how can you apply these findings to your own training? Here is a three-step approach to leverage the power of your inner voice.

Reduce distractions

You won’t be able to hear your inner voice if your brain is always preoccupied with other cognitive tasks. Instead of chatting with a training partner or continuously checking your bike computer, try focusing solely on the physical sensations within your body.

Keep a self-talk log

After each workout, set a timer for 3 minutes and write down any self-directed thoughts that you had while training.

Experiment with different phrases

Research hasn’t yet confirmed the specific self-talk strategies that benefit endurance performance. So, be your own scientist and get curious about how different words and phrases affect your performance. If you’re unsure where to start, here are a few prompts to try:

  • Narrate your training session dramatically, as if you’re describing the actions of a superhero (“She cuts through the water, propelling herself forward with insane power!”)
  • Imagine you’re coaching a kid that you care about. Speak with compassion and encouragement (“I see that you’re tired, but I know you can do this.”)
  • Write down as many instructional/technique cue words as you can (e.g. pull, float, arms, drive, reach, core, etc.). Choose one to repeat for the first few minutes of a training session, then choose another one, and so on. Notice how you feel in response to each word, and keep the ones that resonate with your body.

READ MORE: Don’t Think—And Other Science-Backed Tricks to Talking Yourself into a PR

Daya Grant, Ph.D. is a certified mental performance consultant (CMPC), neuroscientist, and yoga teacher who empowers athletes to get out of their own way and tap into their greatness. She swims, bikes, and runs in Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband and their young son.

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