“Positive self-talk is one of the simplest principles of sports psychology, yet it’s one of the toughest to master,” says clinical health and performance psychologist Leah Lagos, PsyD, BCB, author of Heart Breath Mind. “Studies have shown that those who adopt positive self-talk strategies and motivational self-talk programs can perform better in physical activities, particularly endurance ones.” Other studies have shown that athletes who used positive affirmations for fitness motivation scored higher on strength and endurance tests, she adds.
Conversely, negative self-talk can hinder your performance. “On a physiological level, negative self-talk can raise your heart rate, cause perspiration, and increase muscle tension,” Dr. Lagos says. “It’s one of the most toxic things we can do.”
Why positive self-talk while working out makes it feel less hard
Stress of any kind can activate your sympathetic nervous system (SNS), better known as your “fight-or-flight” response, and danger or physical activity (like working out) intensifies its response. In some ways, this is beneficial: It increases your blood flow and ability to breathe, both of which can help improve your performance.
Too much SNS activation can feel overwhelming, however, which is why being able to help your nervous system regulate itself is essential, especially during situations that cause it to upregulate, like an intense workout. Enter: positive self-talk. “Self-talk may primarily act by reducing performance-related anxiety among athletes,” Dr. Lagos says. “Moreover, self-talk has been linked to greater enjoyment, self-confidence, and higher perceived self-competence.”
The effectiveness of self-talk on performance depends on situational factors, the athlete, and the features of self-talk itself, according to Dr. Lagos. “For instance, some researchers suggest that instructional self-talk may be more beneficial during training because it helps the athlete finesse their skill, whereas motivational self-talk may boost performance in a competitive setting,” she says.
How to practice positive self-talk while working out
There’s a lot of room for personalization when it comes to positive self-talk. What works for one person may not work for another, but the general rule is to focus on what you should be doing rather than what you shouldn’t, says Dr. Lagos. Think: “‘You’ve got a great pace,’” she says. “Or, ‘you’ve got this,’ rather than ‘don’t slow down,’ or ‘this is too hard; I want to quit.’"
Dr. Lagos says the first step to improving your self-talk is identifying negative thinking, and according to her, this generally falls into one of the four categories below:
You focus on the worst parts of a situation and ignore the positive parts. This could look like achieving a new PR but only talking about the part of the run where you didn’t hit your split.
You see things as either good or bad, black or white. "There’s no room for a middle ground," Dr. Lagos says. For example, you think you have to be perfect—if you make mistakes, you're a failure.
You expect the worst. For instance, you don’t have a good first set and assume the rest of the workout will be a disaster.
You blame yourself when bad things happen. Say your workout buddy is in a bad mood, you automatically assume it’s because of you.
Being able to name negative thought patterns can elevate your awareness of them, which, in turn, can help you flip the script when you find it happening. This process is simple, in theory, but as Dr. Lagos notes, it’s tough to master, so take it easy on yourself. “Don't put too much pressure on yourself to nail this on day one,” she says. “Building new habits takes time.”
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