Imagine participating in an experiment in which you’re asked to ride a bicycle until you’re completely exhausted.
A group of scientists will soon be measuring your heart rate, pedaling power and pace. They instruct you to rate how hard the exercise feels during different points of the exercise and attach electrodes to your forehead and cheeks to monitor your grimaces.
You get on the bike and pedal feverishly at about 80 percent of your predetermined maximum force until you simply can’t take it anymore and stop.
In two weeks, you’ll do the same test again. Only this time you’ll have been doing your regular exercise after being coached in ”self-talk”, the verbal banter many athletes use during workouts and competitions.
Compared to the control group that’ll receive no self-talk coaching, how well do you think you’d do?
The Psychobiological Model
Surprisingly little is known about what is going on in our bodies when we get fatigued. How the body knows when it has had enough isn’t fully understood by science.
Logically, it may seem that the muscle activity ceases when our muscles have run out of fuel or fluids. But in reality, it’s not that straightforward.
In studies with rodents, scientists have found reserves in the animals’ muscles even after they’ve been pushed to run until they drop. In other words, their bodies don’t seem to think they can take anymore even though they could keep going physiologically.
It’s experiments like these that recently have prompted some scientists to propose a different theory of exercise-related fatigue in which the brain, rather than the muscles, is responsible for exhaustion after receiving and analysing inputs from the body.
This theory, often called the psychobiological model, allows for more wiggle room when it comes to fatigue. If exhaustion is determined by the brain and, to some degree, is subjective, then the right kind of tweaks during exercise can convince your brain to go further and harder than would otherwise be possible.
It was that exciting possibility that motivated the above biking experiment (1). Because of it, researchers from the University of Kent in Canterbury, England, and other institutions had 24 participants test whether verbally encouraging themselves during a draining workout could affect their minds and postpone fatigue.
When comparing the group in the self-talk condition with the control group, the researchers found a big difference between them. While the control group generally repeated their performances from the first trial and reported about the same level of discomfort in their second test, the self talk group did significantly better.
By verbally supporting themselves with phrases like ”you’re doing well” and ”feeling good” they managed to pedal much longer compared to their first trial and reported that the pedaling felt easier even though their heart rates and facial expressions remained the same as in the first trial.
According to Samuele Marcora, who’s the director of exercise research at the University of Kent, these findings indicate that ”motivational self-talk improves endurance performance compared to not using it” and that physical exhaustion develops to a considerable degree in your head; “If the point in time at which people stop exercising was determined solely biologically, self-talk would have no effect.”
How to Use Positive Self-Talk
The researchers noted that some of the riders in the control group did some self-talk themselves without being asked to. Usually they would do this in the form of muttering or silently exhorting themselves randomly, without gaining any benefits from it.
Dr. Marcora concluded that for self-talk to be effective it has to be consistent and systematic. Rather than randomly uttering motivating words you should use predetermined phrases that particularly encourage you and repeat them often, even on a schedule, especially as a workout or competition wears on:
- Choose 1-3 encouraging phrases. ”You’re doing well” and ”feeling good” were popular examples in this experiment.
- Repeat them consistently. Find a way to systemise your self-talk. For example, if you strength train, you can repeat your phrase at the start of each set or rep. If you’re a runner, you can repeat your phrase every three minutes.
- Convince your brain to keep going. As the workout is getting tougher, use your mind’s excuses to stop as an implementation intention to initiate a phrase, for example: “IF my brain says ‘Stop running’, THEN I’ll say ‘Feeling good’ out loud.”
Being Comfortable With the Uncomfortable
I love this study because I think it’s such an awesome metaphor for how to be successful at anything in life. No matter what you’re trying to achieve, you’re inevitably going to have to face discomfort. And what sets successful people apart from others is precisely their ability to stick to their projects anyway.
When we watch high level performers it’s easy to think they’re somehow different from ourselves. And once we’ve adopted this belief we stop taking action. Our behaviour is determined by our beliefs and without the right mindset we won’t even try to go after what we want.
Genetics and cultural differences don’t determine our performances nearly as much as we think. When we watch a top level performance what we’re really seeing is endless hours of deliberate practice. It’s the accumulation of years and years of showing up and putting in the hours, even in the face of extreme discomfort. And if you ask me, that’s way more fascinating, impressive and inspiring.
Here’s what I’m suggesting to you: Practice being comfortable with being uncomfortable.
When you notice the resistance coming up, keep going just a little bit longer. Just because you feel discomfort doesn’t mean something’s wrong and that you should quit and do something else. In fact, this is the perfect time to practice your self control:
- If you want to exercise, your brain might tell you it’s painful.
- If you want to meditate, your brain might tell you it’s boring.
- If you want to read more books, your brain might tell you to watch TV instead.
Notice the resistance, accept it, then let it go. Use the power of words and tell yourself that you’re feeling good (or use some other empowering statement). Then take action anyway.
Just as you have unconsciously practiced giving in to discomfort, you can practice taking action in spite of it. You can even let it serve as a trigger for you to get big things done.
As you keep taking action in the face of resistance, in time you’ll find that the feeling doesn’t affect you as much anymore. It’ll still show up, but you won’t take it as seriously.
As a result, you can stop procrastinating and start making serious progress towards your goals.
And then you’ll truly be “feeling good.” 😉
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”