Like many people, my first exposure to mantras was through yoga, but over the years I’ve found them useful for focusing my thoughts and reminding myself of things that are easily forgotten in moments of discomfort. They’ve been on my mind lately, and were very useful in helping me through a few tough months of training through pain. At the same time, I’ve noticed some backlash toward mantras. When I posted an instagram photo of reminders I placed on my yoga mat to stay centered during my practice and another of mantras written on my arm before a long run, someone commented that such things were ‘adolescent.’ More recently, Pat Robertson warned his followers of the dangers of mantras. Neither strike me as reliable sources, but they did prompt me to look into how they can be useful for athletes.
It turns out there’s evidence that positive self-talk (which is often implemented by choosing one or two mantras that can be repeated to yourself) is associated with performance gains for athletes. As an example, Alex Hutchinson reported in a Sweat Science column about a study in which cyclists were given two weeks of self-talk training. When asked to cycle to exhaustion those who had received the training showed an 18% improvement in time-to-exhaustion (compared to no gain for a control group). They also reported slower increases in perceived effort. The training involved trying out and then practicing four motivational phrases during training – two used during the early parts of training and two for later in their training session.
More recently, distance runner Heidi Greenwood has written about how mantras help her in her training and racing. She emphasizes two points that are worth noting: you have to practice your mantras for them to work, and they have to be something you can believe (so she tells herself she’s fine, not that she’s awesome or that the workout is a piece of cake).
So, with less than 3 weeks to go until my first Boston Marathon, and training an ongoing, rough combination of good days and unexpected set-backs, I’m doubling-down. I’m focusing on my mental training even as I approach the physical taper to race-day. I’m trying out some new mantras and dusting off some old ones. I still have plenty of hard runs over the next couple of weeks to see which ones speak to me, and which ones I need to leave behind when I head to the starting line.
And in the meantime, when some of my runs aren’t going according to plan, I’m continually reminding myself of the wise words of my trainer: only one run counts. The training runs – good and bad – are great preparation. But in the end, its what I do on race day that I’ll remember.