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The Easy Trick That Helps Athletes Power Through Tough Workouts

Canadian researchers asked 18 trained cyclists to spin through a high intensity workout to test if positive self talk could make a difference in motivation. The room was set to 95 degrees Fahrenheit to make the exercise conditions more extreme.

“We had them try to go as long as they can,” Stephen Cheung, professor and Canada research chair at Brock University, told The Huffington Post. “In that situation you’re left with a binary choice ― you either put up with the discomfort and keep going, or you stop.”

The study was split into two groups and observed over a two week period. Half of the participants were instructed to work out as normal with no intervention from researchers. Cheung’s team worked with the other nine volunteers on motivational self talk.

Those in the self talk group were told to replace their negative thoughts during their workout. Instead of thinking phrases such as, “I’m really hot” or “I’m sweating like crazy,” the exercisers were trained to swap them with positive thoughts such as, “I’m feeling well” or “I’m driving hard.” The researchers then called all 18 athletes back into the gym to repeat the high intensity, heated workout.

The athletes who worked on motivational self-talk worked out up to 25 percent longer than the athletes who received no self talk training, according to the study.

One participant lasted just 13 minutes in the first experiment, Cheung said. After the two-week self talk training, he was able to work out in the challenging conditions for 18 minutes. The exercisers who simply worked out over that period ― and did not engage in self talk training ― did not show any increase in performance.

It’s important reiterate that the experiment was conducted on athletes, who arguably may have better endurance and a greater commitment to working out than the average exerciser. However, the study does tap into the power of positive psychology. Previous research also suggests that positive mantras can ease perceived exercise pain. Our brains might say, “I can’t spin for another minute longer,” but our bodies may be able to keep going.

Cheung says the outcome of the experiment is a lesson for anyone who is trying to power through a tough workout. Most importantly that attitude is key.

“Their legs were still burning, but what they were able to do after motivational training was tolerate it longer,” he said.

Looks like we’ve got to find our mantra, then feel the burn.

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