A positive mental attitude to exercise can certainly get you through the pain barrier as well as motivate you to stay on course for success and the good news is, those skills can be learned.

Ask anyone who has run a conventional marathon or successfully completed L’Etape de Tour or indeed the Marathon Des Sables and they will probably tell you that winning the mental battle is the toughest part of their achievement.  

Mental skill training

Almost all serious athletes acknowledge that mental skill training plays at least some role in their overall preparation and delivery of a great performance. Exactly how much of an influence is a hotly debated topic. Most level-headed sports scientists and enthusiasts would definitely argue that great results come from a combination of real physical training and sound mental training.  

The power of positive thought

An intriguing study with direct implications for athletes was conducted by exercise scientist, Bill Morgan. Morgan hypnotised cyclists before they started to cycle on a bicycle ergometer. The cyclists were asked to pedal for 15 minutes at a constant speed against a constant resistance. For the first five minutes they were told that they were cycling on a flat road. As would be expected, their heart and breathing rates increased and then plateaued.  

They were then told that for the next five minutes they would be cycling up a very steep hill. When this happened their heart and breathing rates dramatically increased. In the final five minute segment of the test, the cyclists were told that they were cycling on the flat road again. Their breathing and heart rates fell back down to 'pre-hill' levels. Physically the task had not increased in difficulty at any time throughout the test, it was just that the cyclists believed that things were going to be harder and their bodies responded accordingly.  

The cyclists believed that things were going to be harder and their bodies responded accordingly...

So many top athletes and sports people refer to positive mental visualisation to help them achieve success. They picture themselves lifting a trophy or finishing a race in front of everyone else and use that mental imagery to spur them on when times get tough. Indeed that type of mental skill – just like physical training – isn’t mastered simply by doing it once. Can you imagine practicing for a race once or twice? No serious athlete would do that with their physical training and yet, too often, mental skills are ignored and sometimes forgotten altogether if they don’t bring immediate results.

For those who feel the mental approach is something that will work for them, they need to focus on the following:  

  • Frequency Practice on a regular basis. Just like physical training, you will need to practice regularly if you wish to see results. Mental training operates on the same principles as physical training. If you have a period of extended inactivity, you will lose the benefits of mental training without regular practice.

  • Duration Make sure you practice for a significant period. That might be regular sessions of 20-30 minutes at a time.  

  • Intensity Bring an emotional content to your sessions so that you replicate (in your imagination) the race/event conditions.  

  • Specificity It’s important to develop a range of skills that can be applied to the ever-changing challenges of a race or event. For example: relaxation for pre-race conditions, self control for the early stages of a race, discipline and perseverance when the race becomes physically draining. Positive self-talk is an extremely important skill and helps steer your emotional reaction whatever the circumstances, towards a positive performance.  

  • Progression Improve the quality of your practices week after week.

Does mental training improve your performance?

Again there are multiple opinions on this from multiple sources but the research is certainly there to back up the argument. The great American marathon runner Bill Rodgers was a great advocate of mental skill training and he often speaks of visualising an enormous hand pushing him up the infamous Heartbreak Hill in the Boston Marathon. There are many who feel it is no coincidence that Rodgers pulled away from his rivals at that critical point in his race (he won the Boston Marathon four times).   

Many experts would agree with this because they believe that athletes seize control of the way they’re performing when they control their thinking. Positive self-talk will encourage a positive performance, but when negative thoughts are allowed to creep in, then self-confidence is eroded and mistakes occur.  

Tennis players are a terrific example of the power of positive thinking. For them positive body language can intimidate an opponent into feeling negative and making unforced errors. Even when a player is match point down if they are mentally strong and still believe they can win the match, it often happens. Positive thoughts can be empowering while negative thoughts can be limiting and debilitating to performance.