Self Talk Strategies For Runners

Self talk is is one of the most common psychological strategies aimed at improving performance. Self talk refer to what people say to themselves when running, both out loud and in their head, with the aim to direct, react to and evaluate actions and events. Self talk can be both negative and positive. First, lets evaluate these too sequences of self talk:

My legs are aching | I’m so thirsty I can’t take it anymore| I can’t do this anymore | Why did I sign up for this | Maybe running isn’t for me.

You can do this | A water point is coming up soon | You can beat the pain | Your legs are strong | It will get easier soon | Your legs feel fresh | You’re doing great, keep going.

You may be familiar with many statements from the first sequence. This is the reactive negative self talk that many runners will say to themselves during a race. We know that these statements can actually reduce motivation and performance when repeated during a race. Imagine if someone was standing on the sidelines, yelling “You can’t do it” or “Give up now”. These would be a touch demotivating right? Well it’s the same when you tell yourself these things in your head.

The second sequence of statements may be a little unfamiliar. They may even seem silly. However, these are the basis of positive self talk.

Strategic self talk is a systematic style of self talk which you plan, practice and implement to help improve performance on race day. Their aim should be to direct and motivate action.

Several types of self talk exist, including:

Instructional Self Talk,

Instructional self talk is used to provide yourself instruction with technique or direction etc. E.g. “Smooth and soft” for running technique, “you have a hill coming up, slow your pace” or “there is a water station ahead”.

Instructional self talk is best when focussing on the obstacles of the race e.g steep hills, the amount of kilometres to go, thirst/hunger etc. Using instructional self talk helps you build self-efficacy that you can handle these obstacles.

Motivational Self Talk

Motivational Self Talk helps build confidence, reduce stress and worry, psych yourself up or to achieve a desired emotional state. E.g. “You can do this”, “your legs feel good”, “you are doing well”, “don’t give up”, “feeling fresh” or “give it your all”.

Motivational self talk is best used when focussing on broader negative thoughts. E.g “This race is too hard”, “I’m too slow”, “I’m not good enough” etc. Motivational self talk helps reduce the effect of these interfering thoughts and builds confidence and self belief.

Both instructional and motivational self talk has been shown to improve confidence, reduce negative interfering thoughts and self belief as well as optimise movement and skill execution.

These self talk strategies have also been shown to improve tolerance to exercise induced pain, and self efficacy, which consequently improves endurance performance.

Using “You” rather than “I”

Some studies suggest that whether you say “I can do this” vs. “You can do this” has a different effect on performance. By refer to yourself as “you” or “Insert name”, you are able to distance yourself from the emotions you are feeling. Using “you” enables a runner to view their own performance and emotions like a third party (such as a coach) would. Distancing yourself from negative emotions can enhance self-efficacy and improves performance (Kross et al., 2014).

So how do you create your own effective and relative self talk strategy?

6 Steps To Implementing A Self Talk Plan

  1. Identify your goal: For a runner, this will usually be to win a race, finish in a certain time or simply just to finish the race.
  2. Know when to use motivational or instructional self talk (see above).
  3. Choose relevant self talk cues: Only you know what goes on in your head during a race. Do you tell yourself you aren’t good enough, you’re too slow, you’re too heavy or that you should give up and not finish? Right down the negative thoughts that come to mind when you’re running, so you can prepare self talk strategies to combat these.
  4. Practice different self talk cues and strategies during your training: Note which of these strategies work for you and adjust accordingly.
  5. Create a self talk plan: Go through the race step by step. Noting every possible obstacle and negative thought that may come into your head. Know which self talk cue you will use at which point.
  6. Practice practice practice! On race day, you will not remember to use self talk strategies if you have not practiced them during training. Practice your self talk plan again and again during training, so on race day you can implement self talk cues without too much thought.

A Final Point

When a runner is in a state of “flow”, they are less likely to engage in any self talk, whether positive or negative (Delrue et al., 2016). Ideally, a runner would rather be in a state of flow than trying to use positive self talk, as a flow state means you are fully absorb in the process of running. Being in this state means you are less likely to focus on feelings of fatigue or pain. It is not until the pain and fatigue become too unbearable, or a runner notices they are falling behind schedule that self talk strategies will help improve performance.


Kross, E., Bruehlman-Senecal, E., Park, J., Burson, A., Dougherty, A., Shablack, H., … & Ayduk, O. (2014). Self-talk as a regulatory mechanism: How you do it matters. Journal of personality and social psychology106(2), 304.

Delrue, J., Mouratidis, A., Haerens, L., De Muynck, G. J., Aelterman, N., & Vansteenkiste, M. (2016). Intrapersonal achievement goals and underlying reasons among long distance runners: Their relation with race experience, self-talk, and running time. Psychologica Belgica56(3), 288.

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