What determines how far we can push ourselves? When I was a teen, I read several books by Richard Bach (Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Illusions) that addressed this question. One quote from Illusions always stayed with me:
Argue for your limitations and they are yours.
As a swimmer, I wondered what my limits were. I went fast in the 100 fly, but often struggled over the last 10 meters to close out the race. (And, I’m loathe to admit, I never really worked out hard enough to truly find out.) But what happens when you ask people to exercise to their absolute limits?
As summarized in a recent blog entry of the N.Y. Times, investigators from the UK and the Netherlands asked 24 participants to exercise to exhaustion on stationary cycles. Then, during a two-week period, 1/2 the participants were given special training in motivational self-talk (ST). The other half served as a control group. When the participants returned to the lab, they were all tested again on the cycling-to-exhaustion task. As hypothesized, the group with the ST training held on significantly longer than they did the first time around (as compared to the control group, which showed no changes). Importantly, the ST trained group also rated their perceived exertion during the second trial as significantly lower than the control group. The researchers couch their findings within a psychobiological framework:
The psychobiological model of endurance performance proposes that perception of effort is the ultimate determinant of endurance performance. Therefore, any physiological or psychological factor affecting perception of effort will affect endurance performance.
There are, of course, a number of psychological factors that affect perception of effort. This study — despite its limitations (e.g., the small sample size) — reveals and emphasizes the power of self-talk.
Earlier this year, I interviewed ultramarathoner Anne Lundblad, about her strategies for pushing to the limits. She emphasizes the importance and power of self-talk here.
Anne’s strategies for self-talk focus on giving herself the energy and confidence she needs when her limits are being pushed. Her strategies are similar to those provided by Jay Mikes in his 1987 book on the mental aspects of basketball:
~ Keep your phrases short and specific
~ Use the first person and present tense
~ Construct positive phrases
~ Say your phrases with meaning and attention
~ Speak kindly to yourself
~ Repeat phrases often
It may be helpful for you to monitor your self-talk for a period of time before you try to change it. See what situations trigger negative self-talk and which situations are easier to handle. Figure out “who lives in your head” and make sure that person is a friend and not a foe!