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Out There: Self-Talking Our Bodies Into Submission

  • By Mario Fraioli
  • Published Apr. 7, 2011

Watch the athletes in the moments leading up to the race. They’re talking to themselves. You know, like crazy folk.

Written by: Susan Lacke

Endurance athletes are a crazy bunch, aren’t they?

If it wasn’t for our sport, we’d fall under the diagnostic criteria for a psychological disorder. We feel anxiety when we don’t fulfill our compulsion to run, bike or swim. We shave our bodies. We have no problem going in nature when…ahem…nature calls.

There’s no greater proof of our crazy, however, than at the start line of a race.

Seriously, folks: Watch the athletes in the moments leading up to the race. They’re talking to themselves. You know, like crazy folk.

Self-talk is an important part of the athlete’s arsenal. Without the internal monologue, many of us would struggle when we hit the proverbial ‘wall’ in each race. After all, it’s not the Tour de France – there’s no earpiece in our helmet, connected to the coach barking motivation from the follow car.

So we talk to ourselves, crazy label be damned. There’s a race to finish.

Every athlete has a different strategy. Chrissie Wellington, an Ironman World Champion many times over, relies on Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If” to give her strength and courage. Matt Frazier, runner and founder of of No Meat Athlete, uses the poignant lines of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

I quickly rejected that strategy. Come on, people: I can barely remember “Roses are red; Violets are blue.”

My friend Bekki, who is in the midst of running a marathon in each state, pats her body down before every race and gives her muscles, bones, and joints a pep talk, usually along the lines of “You can do this. You’ve done it before. Let’s go.” When her body talks back during the race, she simply soothes it with talk of puppies and rainbows and warm-fuzzy feelings.

I tried taking the positive self-talk approach. Ultimately, I only felt like a parent telling her morbidly obese and unintelligent child that yes, she could be anything she wanted to be – including Miss Universe-Valedictorian-President-of-the-United-States. I was only deluding myself.

I then decided to try a fellow triathlete’s approach of repeating a mantra. During runs, accomplished age-grouper Steve Rink appeases the Endurance Gods by reminding himself of the need to be Fresh and Loose. While struggling during a long run, I began to think “Fresh and Loose.” Lo and behold, I opened up. I felt Fresh! I felt Loose! I took my Fresh and Loose legs up hills, down hills, over trails. So Fresh! So Loose! I even started doing some Fresh and Loose shadowboxing as I ran.

Then I tripped over a Fresh and Loose rock and took a Fresh and Loose fall. Fresh and Loose Humble Pie.

Positive talk? Screw that. When I’m about to put my body through the rigors of training or racing, I need to show it who’s boss. My legs better bow down to me in submission, do what I ask of them, and start and finish each statement with “MA’AM, YES MA’AM!”

I discovered this during a trail run about a year ago. Mid-run, I discovered I was hungry and tired. To add insult to injury, I had to run uphill most of the way home. I could have walked, but that was a long walk in the hot summer sun…and would have defeated the purpose of that day’s training.

So began the self-flagellation.

“Let’s go, legs. You’re mine now.”

I began to run.

“You don’t like it? Tough.”

I ran faster.

“That’s right. You’re my (bleep) now.”

I was sailing. I was in heaven. My body had finally submitted to my mind!

“That’s some talk you got going on there.”

I screeched to a halt. I didn’t say that. I DIDN’T SAY THAT. What? WHAT?

Beside me, an older guy smiled.

“Next time you use those kinds of names, make sure someone isn’t on the trail with you.”

I sheepishly looked down. As he ran off, he yelled some parting advice:

“By the way, I call mine Sissy (bleeps)!”

Eureka! Finally, the secret of mind over matter was unlocked! Crazy guy on the trail, if you’re reading this, thanks for the advice. Since that day on the trails, I’ve used that term of endearment for my legs…crazy label be damned.

FILED UNDER: Inside The Magazine / Out There TAGS: / / / / /

Mario Fraioli

Mario Fraioli

Mario Fraioli is a senior editor at Competitor magazine. A cross-country All-American at Stonehill College in 2003, he now coaches the Prado Women's Racing Team in San Diego and was the men's marathon coach for Costa Rica's 2012 Olympic team. His first book, The Official Rock 'n' Roll Guide To Marathon & Half-Marathon Training (VeloPress, 2013) is available in bookstores, running shops and online.

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