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One Secret Exercise Trick That's So Easy You Won't Believe It Works

Do this one mental tactic for transforming yourself into "The Little Engine That Could."
FACT CHECKED BY Alex Daniel

What would you do if I told you there was a totally free way to improve your fitness performance, no expensive sneakers, overrated supplements, or sorcery involved? You'd try it, right? Would you still be interested if I told you it has to do with self-talk—meaning how you talk to yourself inside your head?

Don't be so skeptical. The mere thought of positive affirmations might make you roll your eyes, but as argued this week in The Globe and Mail, what you say to yourself while you work out can majorly affect your performance. Decades of research suggests that motivational and instructional self-talk—aka telling yourself phrases that either are encouraging or helping you focus on a specific task—has been shown to enhance athletic performance. Meanwhile, negative self-talk (like "This is too hard, I can't do it!") can negatively affect performance.

It's one thing to know this, and another thing to actually put it in practice. After all, aren't we all our own harshest critics? But rest assured that better habits can be learned, and to great effect. Take this small 2016 study from Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, which found that cyclists who received self-talk training before a hot race saw a 39 percent increase in endurance.

Ready to improve your self-talk game? Here are four ways to upgrade your internal monologue—and your PR while you're at it. (And for more tips, check out One Running Trick That Makes Running Easier.)

1

Identify Your Goals

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Think about what your workout goals or challenges are to better tailor your self-talk. For example, are you struggling to keep up pace when you hit a particularly steep hill on your running route? Maybe you need to focus on some motivational self-talk in that moment to keep you moving. Find yourself freezing up when you're at bat during the company softball game? Instructional self-talk (like "Keep your eye on the ball" or "Don't lock your knees") might be more helpful. And for more exercise tips, be sure to read Secret Side Effects of Walking After a Meal.

2

Switch to the Second Person

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It's not just about what you're saying, but also how you say it. A 2019 study published in the Journal of Sports Sciences found that cyclers who switched their self-talk from first-person (such as "I can do this!") to second-person ("You can do this!") enjoyed a performance boost during a 10K race. Why? Experts believe that talking to yourself in the second person or by name helps you create more distance between yourself and the task at hand (such as a particularly difficult stretch of road on your run), which can provide more self-control and confidence with less anxiety.

3

Keep It Positive

Smiling young female runner taking a breather. Healthy young woman with sweat standing on the promenade after her workout and smiling.

Let's be real: "You suck" is rarely ever motivating, so why do we say it to ourselves when the going gets rough? Extensive research shows that positive, affirming self-talk helps you perform better during workouts. Take this small 2014 study from Medicine & Science of Sports & Exercise, which found that athletes who engaged in motivational self-talk improved their endurance compared to those who stuck with negative self-talk. Talk to yourself like you would a friend—be encouraging, supportive, and motivational.

4

Reframe Negative Thoughts

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Negative thoughts, especially during a difficult workout, are bound to come up every now and then. But instead of letting them linger (and ruin your workout), reframe them. "I suggest writing down the negative self-talk statements that come up for you," says personal trainer Dana Bender, MS, NBC-HWC, ACSM, in an article for the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). "Then, ask yourself, What might be a more helpful and adaptive statement?" For example, instead of thinking, "You can't do this" when confronted with a really challenging strength-training rep, you could re-frame that unhelpful thought to, "You will learn how to do this." (Looking for an easy workout that comes with big results? Here's What Walking for Just 20 Minutes Does to Your Body, According to Science.)

Jessie Van Amburg
Jessie Van Amburg is a freelance writer and editor who has covered health, nutrition, and lifestyle topics for top media outlets including Women's Health Magazine, TIME.com, and Well+Good. Read more
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