Choosing the right motivational phrase kept me moving all the way to a marathon PR.

By Ashley Mateo
Getty Images/Anadolu Agency

Before I crossed the start line at the 2019 London Marathon, I made myself a promise: Any time I felt like I wanted or needed to walk, I'd ask myself, "Can you dig a little deeper?" And as long as the answer was yes, I wouldn't stop.

I'd never used a mantra before. Mantras always seemed like something better suited to Instagram and yoga intentions than words actually worth repeating out loud (or even just in my head). But at every marathon I'd run so far—London was my sixth—my brain checked out way before my lungs or my legs. I knew I needed something to keep me dialed in if I wanted to stay on my goal pace and run a sub-four hour marathon, which would be my fastest time ever.

I wasn't the only one using a mantra at the London Marathon. Eliud Kipchoge—you know, only the greatest marathoner of all time—wore his mantra, "no human is limited," on a bracelet; you can see it the photos from London, where he set a new course record of 2:02:37, an insanely fast time second only to his world-record setting pace at the Berlin Marathon in 2018 (you can also see his bracelet in the photos from that day).

Boston Marathon champ Des Linden uses the mantra "calm, calm, calm. Relax, relax, relax," to stay in the zone on the course. New York City Marathon winner Shalane Flanagan's mantra for the Olympic Trials was "cold execution." And professional marathoner Sara Hall repeats "relax and roll" to stay focused during a race.

The pros use mantras because they keep them engaged in the run, explains Erin Haugen, Ph.D., a sports psychologist based in Grand Forks, ND. "When you're running, your brain is taking in a massive amount of data: the scenery, the weather, your thoughts, your emotions, how your body feels, whether you're hitting your pace, etc." When we're uncomfortable, she says, we tend to focus on the negative—how heavy your legs feel or how strong the wind is in your face. But science shows that focusing on that will negatively impact your rate of perceived exertion (how hard an activity feels). "Mantras help us cue into something positive that is occurring or that we want to occur," explains Haugen. "They also prime us to experience or notice positive emotions that can help us think more productively about the task at hand."

Can a few words really be powerful enough, though, to help you run faster or longer—or both? There's tons of science that backs up the power of motivational self-talk. It was one of the psychological skills (along with imagery and goal-setting) shown to boost athletic endurance in an examination of more than 100 sources published in the journal Sports Medicine. Positive self-talk was also linked to improved performance in an earlier meta-analysis published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science. Motivational self-talk also reduced the perceived rate of exertion and increased the endurance of cyclists in a study published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise (a later study showed that that held true even in the heat).

The science is less clear, though, when specifically looking at runners. By studying 45 college cross country runners, researchers found they were more likely to reach the "flow" state—AKA that runner's high when your body seems to feel and perform best—when using motivational self-talk, according to research published in the Journal of Sport Behavior. However, while tracking 29 runners in a 60-mile, overnight ultramarathon, motivational self-talk did not appear to affect performance, according to research published in Sport Psychologist. Still, follow-up data from that study found that most participants did find the self-talk helpful, and continued to use it after the experiment.

"The utilization of mantras have many positive impacts on one's emotional, physical, and psychological well-being," says Hillary Cauthen, Psy.C., an executive board member of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. "That said, it takes time, intention, and continuous utilization of mantras to assist in impacting one's performance."

Whenever I've walked in a marathon—and I've walked in every one I've run, no shame in that—it's because my brain thinks I need to walk. But by asking myself to dig a little deeper throughout the London course, I ran for 20 miles straight. Predictably, it was after crossing that 20 mile marker (the dreaded "wall" for most marathons) that I started to doubt myself. Every time I slowed down or took a walk break, though, I'd look at my watch and see the elapsed time getting closer and closer to my goal time, and I'd think, "dig deeper." And every time, I surprised myself by picking up the pace. It was hard, and by the time I rounded the corner of St. James Park to see Buckingham Palace just meters from the finish I wanted to cry, but I always had more gas in the tank—enough to get me over the finish line and reach my sub-four hour marathon goal with one minute and 38 seconds to spare

Mantras are personal and situational. "Dig deeper" worked for me during this race; next time, I might need something different to keep me moving. To figure out what might work for you, "as part of your mental race preparation, think back to the toughest workouts from your training and make a mental note of how they conquered them," says Haugen. Imagine the parts of a race where you might struggle—ahem, mile 20—and ask yourself, "What might I need to hear at that moment?" (Related: The Importance of *Mentally* Training for a Marathon)

"That can cue you into whether you need a motivational statement, such as 'I am strong, I can do this' or something that helps you accept discomfort, such as "this is normal for this part of the race, everyone feels this way right now,'" says Haugen.

Then, make sure your mantra connects to your passion and purpose, says Cauthen. "Find the emotion you want to embrace within your performance domain and develop words that evoke that emotional response," she says. Say it out loud, write it down, listen to it, live it. "You need to believe in the mantra and connect to it for optimal benefit." (Related: How to Meditate with Mala Beads for a More Mindful Practice)

For all the time you spend on your feet while running, you're spending just as much in your head. Mental training should be a no-brainer. And if choosing—and verbalizing—a few words could help spur you on or make it feel a little easier (even if it's just the placebo effect), who wouldn't take that boost?

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