Mantras for Your Mental Game

[Editor’s Note: Today we are so excited to welcome trail runner, ultrarunner, and coach Alex Nichols to iRunFar’s contributor team! His column ‘Always Improving’ is our brand-new coaching column and will publish monthly. Welcome, Alex!]

It was sticky humid. Sweat was stinging my eyes and dripping off my chin. Just a few days before I had been training in below-freezing temperatures in the dry air of Colorado. Suddenly I was thrown into the mountains of Hong Kong, attempting to run 100 kilometers as fast as I could. I hit a climb at the 48-kilometer mark that looked like it went on forever, all hard-packed clay and stone stairs–so many stairs. I started walking for the first time in the race. I felt like I couldn’t go any slower. At any moment, I would probably be passed by hundreds of runners.

The 2018 Vibram Hong Kong 100k started well. I had cruised through the early portion of the race, feeling comfortable and holding a top-15 spot. We were running fast in those early miles, including a few six-minute miles mixed in, but I felt like I was holding back. I could hear the runners next to me breathing hard trying to hold pace, and I smugly thought to myself that they would drop off soon. The course is notoriously difficult later on, with almost all of the elevation coming in the second half. It was all going to plan until we hit some climbs and descents that I didn’t remember seeing on the course profile. Those little blips on paper were quad-thrashing mountains in person. I was holding my position, but my breathing wasn’t so easy anymore. I grew less smug and more worried.

In the course of a few slow kilometers, my entire mood changed. I went from being excited and focused, to feeling absolute dread. I was afraid of being caught by the other runners. I questioned my abilities. I was thinking, Why am I out here doing this to myself? I don’t belong here. I’m probably not going to finish. I even remember coming into the 50k aid station yelling to my wife Maddy who was crewing me, “This is the hardest race in the world!” My inner dialogue was entirely negative and my confidence gone at that point, but I at least got myself out of the aid station and back onto the course.

Once I was back in the race, I hit a steady downhill and started to move faster again. In that moment I decided that I had come too far and worked too hard to let myself fall into a hole of negativity. It was a surprising moment of clarity that came to me during that dark time. I started repeating two phrases to myself: “I’ve come this far. Just keep pushing.” Those spur-of-the-moment mantras pushed me throughout the rest of the race.

The author running the 2018 Vibram Hong Kong 100k. All photos: iRunFar/Meghan Hicks

All athletes deal with self-talk. It just so happens that distance runners, especially ultramarathoners, have a lot of extra time to grapple with their inner dialogue. These thoughts can be productive and boost confidence, or they can be destructive, with the ability to ruin a race. Ellis (2014) describes the ABC’s of self-talk as A: the activating event, B: the beliefs or interpretation of the situation, and C: the consequences of how we handled the activating event. In my case, the activating event was the climb at the 48-kilometer point. It was that dismal moment that activated my negative self-talk. I initially interpreted the event as the end of my competitive race. As I stared up at the impossible climb in front of me, I was very ready to call the whole thing off and go back to the U.S. on the next flight. However, after the 50k aid station, I reframed my beliefs about the situation when I began to use my mantra “I’ve come this far. Just keep pushing.” The consequence of my belief was that I improved my emotional state and increased my motivation and confidence, which in turn led to a better performance in the race.

Just like planning a race strategy, you can plan to overcome negative self-talk by developing a positive mantra. It is not a matter of if negative thoughts will occur, but when. Positive mantras can be developed for a specific race, but also for use in training and pre-race situations. Burton and Raedeke (2008) recommend keeping these aspects of positive self-talk in mind when developing your self-talk script or mantra:

Be an optimist. Focus on what you can do, not what you can’t. For example, consider using a phrase like “Keep moving up.” instead of “Don’t let people pass me.” Only use positive affirmations in your mantra.

Be specific and focus on the present. Align your mantra with your pre-race goals. What can you do to make this race the best it can be? You can consider the conditions, the distance, and even the surface. Let’s say you are about to race a hot year at the Western States 100. A specific mantra for those conditions could be, “Cool and easy.”

Be realistic. Focus on things that are within your control, such as your own race instead of what happens to others. You can’t control what happens around you, but you can be ready when changes occur. You could even develop a mantra to be ready if you happened to get off-course. It might not happen often, but you can prepare for the unexpected with a mantra like, “I can adapt to anything.”

Make it something short and use it often. The best mantras are ones that are easy to remember and repeat. You have enough to focus on during a race, so make your mantra something that is easy to recall and use. Eight words or less is ideal.

Once you have started to develop your personal mantras, write them down and save them. Creating a collection of mantras on notecards is a great way to have your mantras on hand. These can be just the confidence boost you need before going into a tough workout or intimidating race. With a little planning you can be prepared to change your beliefs the next time you are faced with an activating event.

Out there on the stony trails of Hong Kong, I was lucky enough to develop my mantras out of pure desperation. Those phrases were my way of disrupting my negative beliefs by reminding myself of the training it took to get to this point and the distance I had already covered. It reassured me that I had the ability to finish the race if I just kept moving forward. As I repeated those mantras I moved up through the field, all the way to second place. Successfully confronting my negative thoughts with very little pre-race planning was a stroke of luck, and something I would not recommend relying on. By coming into the situation more prepared than I was, you can determine the physical and emotional consequences of your internal dialogue.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Have you ever intentionally or unintentionally used mantras to help you during a race or difficult training run?
  • What mantras have you used? How and why did you choose them?

References

  • Burton, D., & Raedeke, T. D. (2008). Sport psychology for coaches. Leeds: Human Kinetics.
  • Ellis, A. (2014). Better, deeper, and more enduring brief therapy: the rational emotive behavior therapy approach. New York, NY: Routledge.

The author after putting mantras to good use to take second at the 2018 Vibram Hong Kong 100k.

Alex Nichols

coaches at Colorado College as well at Trails and Tarmac. He's a graduate student pursuing his master's in Sport Coaching at the University of Denver. On the trails, Alex has won the Pikes Peak Marathon, Mont Blanc 80km, and Run Rabbit Run 100 Mile; he holds the supported Nolan’s 14 record; and he's fallen on his face roughly a million times. He's supported by SCOTT Running and Honey Stinger.

There are 18 comments

  1. Todd Johns

    In my first 50 miler when the going got tough I came back to two simple mantras:
    1. Gratitude – I was incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to be out in nature doing something I love and challenging myself in a way that I hadn’t before. I got the idea for this as a mantra from listening to Billy Yang’s podcast.
    2. Be Present – I used this not only to keep myself in the moment and not think about the fact that I knew a horrible hill was coming or that I had a lot of miles to go, but also to make sure I was enjoying the experience in real time.

    1. Alex Nichols

      Great thoughts Todd. I especially like your idea to use Gratitude. It can be so easy to get caught up in the competitive side of racing, and forget just how lucky we are to be healthy and able to run on trails.

  2. Martha Wright

    I spent last Saturday’s 50-miler reminding myself to “Trust the process” (i.e., my training) to keep myself from worrying about how I’d feel in the later miles.

  3. Luke

    During a tough section of Wasatch this year I noticed that my mood was turning and I was going towards a dark place. Out of nowhere, the mantra “Smooth. Easy. Smile” came into my head and completely turned my race around. I must have repeated that phrase a thousand times over the remainder of the race, and each time I repeated it I put a smile on my face and felt an immediate boost of energy. Worked great for me on that day!

  4. Billy Satterwhite

    I love this, and its something that comes to me naturally (thankfully) when shit hits the fan. A phrase might pop in my head and I’ll latch onto it. The one mantra I always carry with me is “to be HERE is glorious”. I write it on my arm in sharpie before every race.

  5. Alex Nichols

    That’s really cool Billy. Sharpie to the arm is next level! But honestly I think we all know how difficult basic thinking can get during a long race. Having your mantra literally on your body for the whole race is a great option to get that constant reminder without needing to work at all to recall it.

  6. Eric

    I recently came across a section of a book about longevity in sports focusing on the mental game. For mantras, it suggested that studies have apparently shown that saying, “You can do this” is actually more impactful than “I can do this.” Essentially anything where it’s almost as if a third party is telling it you, instead of just you telling yourself. I’ve actually been doing this for a while, but never really considered the difference/impact.

    Another one they talk about is what a psychologist teaches Navy SEALs and now other athletes. It’s called, “Stay in your circle.” Outside the circle is everything that is going wrong, that can go wrong, etc. And almost 100% of them are outside of your control. Inside the circle are 3 things. Your attitude. Your emotions. Your actions. Those are the only 3 you focus on. So when a race starts to dip, “stay in your circle.” Keep your spirits up. Problem solve. Keep going. I just used it this past weekend when I started to struggle in the desert heat. I couldn’t control the heat, but I stopped it from dehydrating me/overheating me early and I was able to power through the night and finish.

  7. Ted schultz

    Great article Alex, I like hearing about other runners mental strategies when things get tough. Running up with you and Simon at last years ascent was neat because it gave me a boost of confidence when things were getting tough up the W’s.

    Some of my favorites include saying’the mind runs the body’ and thinking of david goggins’ cookie jar of past accomplishments to get confidence when things aren’t going well. My last ultra I stole one from colin o’Brady which is ‘I am strong and I am capable’ and I read one from Jordan hasay ‘I breathe in strength and I breathe out weakness’

    Looking forward to more of these articles and hopefully some more miles on the trail with you.

    1. Alex Nichols

      Thanks Ted. I really like Jordan Hasay’s mantra. I might have to try that one myself!

      Isn’t it crazy how little motivational things in a race can really turn things around? For you, just running with Simon and I reinforced that you were capable of competing, and so then you competed. I’m hoping to write another article about the unique motivational aspects of trail running, kind of like your experience at Pikes Peak Ascent.

  8. Tom

    I remember running a 50 miler years ago, before my son was born. My wife and I suffered 2 miscarriages prior to this pregnancy. I remember talking to God and told him “I choose faith over fear.” I was referring to have faith in believing this will workout the way they are meant to, just like my run.

    Since then I have developed more mantras, my current favorite is from Marcus Luttrell, “you are never out of the fight.”

  9. RR

    One of my favorite recent mantras was Stay Cool. This was for a hot 50 miler, and it applied to staying both physically and mentally cool in the heat. Sure enough, ice and patience got me to a great result!

  10. Tyler Baxley

    Thanks for sharing – loved the insights! As a sport psych. grad student, I was lucky enough to go to a conference last year where they shared tons of cool research on this. The biggest takeaway was the importance in keeping that internal dialogue constructive, as opposed to feeling that it has to be positive or negative. I’ve had some pretty irrational thoughts crop up in latter stages of a race that if vocalized, I’d sound like a maniac. But, in those moments, keeping the mantra constructive keeps the feet moving forward.

Post Your Thoughts