Study Proves That Positive Self-Talk During A Workout Delays Fatigue

You’re halfway through a HIIT class and the instructor is cueing you to push your limits.  You feel like you’ve hit a wall, but the person next to you not only is keeping up with the instructor but is making it look easy.

You have a couple of choices.  Drop out, catch your breath and get a drink of water.  Or, start sending some positive messages to yourself so that you get to the end without stopping.

New research proves what many of us already believe to be true. Pushing your performance limits during workouts or competitive events may be more closely tied to the verbal messages your brain is sending out than we realize.

Flickr photo by

                       The will to win the race comes from the brain.     (flickr photo by Ethan Lofton)

Mind-Body Research

The mind-body connection was reinforced by researchers from the University of Kent in Canterbury, England who found 24 healthy, physically active young men and women who were willing to push their limits by riding a bike to the point of exhaustion.

The researchers did some basic lab work and measurements on the participants.  Next the participants were asked to pedal on a computerized stationary bike at about 80 percent of their maximum force until they felt they could not continue.

The researchers took recorded measurements while the participants rode the bikes.  They measured each rider’s heart rate, pedaling power, and pace.  Plus, they attached electrodes to their foreheads and cheeks so they could track facial contractions.  Each rider was asked several times throughout the ride and again at the end how hard the ride felt using a scale of zero to 10.

After the initial ride, participants were divided randomly into two groups. The first group was instructed to continue with their normal exercise routine for the next two weeks.  The second group, however, was coached on using positive self talk.  Each volunteer found four phrases that they found to be the most encouraging and were asked to use those during their normal exercise sessions for the next two weeks.  It’s important to note that the participants that were to incorporate the positive self- talk were instructed to avoid using phrases that might be berating or de-motivating.

Two weeks later both groups returned to the research lab and repeated the cycling test.  Participants in the second  group repeated their four phrases either silently to out loud during the ride.

Convincing Results

The results of the study are pretty amazing.  The bikers in the first group repeated their performance.  They rode the same distance at the same pace for about the same amount of time and experienced the same degree of discomfort.

The positive self-talk group however pedaled longer and indicated that the ride felt much easier than the first time. Their measurements showed that their heart rates and facial expressions were the same as they were during the first ride which indicated that the physical exertion had been just as intense.

The research concludes that “motivational self-talk improves endurance performance compared to not using it”, according to Samuele Marcora, the director of exercise research at the University of Kent and senior author of the study.

But, Marcora says to be effective the self-talk has to be consistent and systematic and he suggests that people use phrases that are highly motivating to them and repeat them systematically on a schedule throughout the workout.

Does Your Brain Control Fatigue?

The most interesting point of this research is that it suggests that the feeling of ‘hitting a wall’ that we’ve all experienced, and succumbing to exhaustion may have as much or more to do with our brain than our muscles.  Marcora says, “If the point in time at which people stop exercising was determined solely biologically, self-talk would have no effect.”

But the study shows that self-talk does have an impact.  A positive one.  And it’s a method that can work for you too.

If you want to get the most from your workouts, get busy and find those four phrases that your body responds to in a positive way and start the practice of repeating them during each workout.

What favorite phrase do you use to keep yourself going?  Leave it in the comment box below.

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