You Are Not What You Think

I tell my athletes, everyone has negative thoughts; it is what we do with the negative thoughts that separate the elite thinkers from the average thinkers in sport.  This is important to understand.  We all have negative thoughts, no one is immune.  The first step is to understand this and realize avoidance is not the target.  And, when we do have these thoughts it doesn’t mean we are not mentally strong.  The mentally strong have trained and perfected how to respond to challenging times, which inevitably produce negative feelings.  So the take home here is do not beat yourself up if you have bad thoughts during your performance, EXPECT IT and then MODIFY IT.

Modifying or changing the meaning of this negative self-talk is the key. When you are feeling tired or challenged in training or a race, this inner voice can be very negative. It can question what you are doing, talk you out of keeping going, and become a general nuisance. Positive self-talk is needed when feeling challenged.

Endurance racing and training involves coping with fatigue, which can be learned; you can turn the voice off and you can turn from negative to positive. First, think back to those challenging times when you felt tired and had bad legs. Think of what you said to yourself. Write it down. The next step is to change the negative self-statements into positive self-statements.

For example, consider the negative self-statement, ‘My legs have gone. I will have to slow down’. This relationship between feeling tired and what to do about these feelings is clearly terminal for performance. We need to change both parts of this self-statement. Rather than saying ‘my legs have gone’ we need to change this to a transient statement such as ‘my legs are tired’. This is more likely to be true in any case. Tiredness tends to come in waves during endurance events and intense feelings of physical tiredness can pass.

It is also important to change the strategy for dealing with challenging times. I suggest that runners should focus on their technique and running relaxed when feeling tired. Focusing on technique and relaxation is a good strategy as it is largely under the control of the athlete. If the runner focuses all of their attention on relaxed technique, this can detract attention from sensations of fatigue. The outcome is a much more positive self-statement: ‘My legs are feeling tired, so I will concentrate on relaxed technique to make them more efficient.’

A good way of using self-talk is to try to anticipate difficult moments in competition or in training. Develop self-talk scripts to change negative scenarios to positive ones. Use a combination of imagery and self-talk to create situations in which you experience unpleasant emotions, and see yourself deal successfully with these situations, using positive self-talk to control the inner voice in your head that can be negative.

We must also not confuse difficulty with failure.  I see this all the time when workouts are challenging or difficult for one of my athletes.  Because the workout or race is challenging, the thought process immediately goes to, “I am not good” or “I failed”.  The workout or race should be challenging and difficult.  So again, EXPECT IT and MODIFY IT.  I coach my athletes to look forward to negative talk because this allows them the opportunity to perform to the fullest.  You need to be challenged to be at your best. If you can view negative self talk as a positive opportunity and something NECESSARY for peak performance, a funny thing happens.  Once you have the awareness that negative talk is necessary, you expect it, you are ready for it, you will embrace it, and you will not back down  to the challenge.  Sounds funny, but it works!


Remember that psychological toughness is built on a firm platform of physical fitness. To enjoy racing and running, athletes need to have experienced repeated training bouts of specific race intensity and hard efforts. In the same way you train your body to cope with these demands of training, you also train your mind to think positively about difficult times and hard efforts.  

Hope this helps and would love to use comments on this page for you to list your positive mantras when things get challenging.


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  • Once when I was so tired, and pretty well convinced due to pain in my knee and severe fatigue that I could not possibly move beyond a limpy walk, my fresh pacer said, "come on, think 'light, happy feet'". For some reason as rediculous as that statement should have sounded and as irritable as I was, I was surprised at how quickly I accepted that and just said it over and over again and amazingly enough my feet and legs listened. After 65 miles of running they became light and happy....and running again. I was amazed. So, "light, happy feet" is one I now use a lot when everything gets tired and sluggish.
  • Zen fits runners like ham and cheese.
  • Ahhh, good reminder at a really good time for me! Getting ready to run my first marathon. Thought I wouldn't/shouldn't be nervous since I have a few ultras under my belt, but now 2 weeks from te OKC marathon I'm quite scared! I want to do really well, which scares me even more! So now I'm having to figure out what to do with these feelings and how to "embrace" them and "modify" them so I CAN be my best!
  • I also separate my head from my body and I tell my legs that they can complain as much as they like but my head isnt going to allow them to stop under any circumstances so they might aswell enjoy it, relax, and keep going. And the best positive of all is the image of crossing the finish line and that amazing feeling of achievement that you cant get any other way.

  • I just ran my first ever marathon and the best piece of advice I received was from an ex special forces marine (think sleep deprivation as a form of training). He said the following: "No matter how bad you are feeling and how much you feel like you want to crawl, your body is still only doing 30% of what is actually capable of doing". Really?! So my mantra (especially for the last 12km or so) was "Relax your legs and at 30%". It has a nice rhythm to it as well.
  • Eric, My biggest challenge with negative thoughts is when my HR skyrockets out of my training zone due to steep inclines--yes we have found a few in Ft Worth--and I eventually resort to walking for it to come down back into range.  I read the blog posts and tried this week to relax and recover while still running, but couldn't get HR down (1/2 marathon trail plan, Wk 9, day 58: 8 min intervals zone 4-5a and day 62: 1:35:00 in zones 2-3) .  

    I also tried working on my mental game by giving myself permission to walk and thinking 'even the pros walk some'.  Another day I took some pictures thinking 'Eric probably stops and takes pictures'. 

    However, if I walk, I seem to be more likely to roll my feet, stumble, or stub my toe since I am 'walking' and I start thinking 'I am so slow, what if I'm last' (thinking ahead to the Palo Duro run next month).  Should I focus more on the mental game if I walk, or do you have other suggestions to recover and get my HR down without walking?

  • Eric et al what do you think of laughing at yourself when running?   failing that, focusing on technique definitely works!!
  • Thanks again, Eric.  I never put it together this way.  I assumed that re-creating race-like conditions in training would strengthen the body and mind to deal with discomfort.  I've never seen it as an opportunity to work on those negative thoughts ... I'm not ready for this, today.  If only I felt great, like I did two Mondays ago.  Can I really drill these hill repeats or will I give up short of race effort?  Great counsel.
  • My mantra for when things get challenging: "Full of strength, full of grace"... (it also works well into the rhythm of my stride)

    Remember that we are all so much stronger than we will ever know, and the integrity created by tapping into our deepest grace will help us surpass any limits, creating boundless possibilities.


    Another little trick I use, is to take a moment to expand my perspective and try not to let "my suffering" dominate my entire experience. If I am in a beautiful place, I look around and drink in the fresh air and scenery taking in as much detail as possible. If that still doesn't work, I play the gratitude game. I start by finding one thing that I am grateful for in that moment, and then another, and then another, etc. It spins my mind into a more positive direction, and allows my heart to brighten~


    If that still doesn't work, where else would I turn but to 80s rock. Nothing a little Survivor, Eye of the Tiger and the like can't cure :)

  • My "secret" motivation is to count steps.  When I'm more than half way, I tell myself that I can go another 100 steps.  When I finish the 100, I tell myself that I did the 100 so well, I can now do just another 90.  That's all.  Just 90. Piece of cake.  Of course, I talk myself into just another 80, etc. until I get the last 10 done.  At this point I raise both arms and cheer for myself (aloud or silently depending on the circumstances).  After which I convince myself I can go another 10, another 20, etc. up to 100.  The kicker is: if I lose count I have to start over on that section.  I.e., if I lose count in the 20's, I have to start the 20s over.  This usually gets me to the end of the line because it keeps me going and I'm so busy NOT forgetting the count (so I won't have to do a section over) that I don't have the time to think about the pain.  

    If I'm not even halfway, more often than not, I get tired of the counting and quit the numbers game. I look to see how far I've gotten and congratulate myself for getting that far and remind myself I now know I can finish!

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