Top athletes are always saying that success in a sport is largely mental. It sounds nice, but is it really true?

Until recently, there wasn’t much proof one way or the other. But new research is revealing some surprises about the relationship between the mind and body during periods of strain.

In 2012, Spanish research conducted an interesting study in which they tracked the thoughts and emotions in a group of subjects as they performed a 30 minute run that started easy and then got much harder. The researchers observed that a huge spike in negative thoughts occurred right before the subjects reached the point of exhaustion.

One way to interpret this finding is that the discomfort of extreme physical fatigue caused the subjects to experience negative thoughts. But another recent study suggests that something else is going on.

The other study was done by a team of British and Dutch scientists. Twenty-four healthy, active adults participated. All were required to complete a pair of high-intensity stationary bike rides to the point of exhaustion, separated by two weeks. During the intervening two weeks, half of the subjects were trained in positive self-talk, a strategy that many sports psychologists and coaches encourage athletes to use to combat the negative thoughts that coincide with fatigue. The remaining subjects were given no training in positive self-talk.

On average, subjects who received training in positive self-talk performed more than 17 percent better in the second stationary bike test than they did in the first. There was no improvement among members of the control group.

Obviously, the cause of the improvement in endurance among the self-talk group was not physical; it was purely mental. The training in positive self-talk reduced perceptions of fatigue during the exercise test, which allowed the cyclists to keep pedaling longer before they reached a level of exertion that was intolerable. At a fixed point in both the pre-test and the post-test, all of the subjects were asked to rate their exertion level on a 1-10 scale. In the second bike test, subjects who had been trained in positive self-talk reported a lower perceived exertion level at this point compared to the first test whereas the controls did not.

This finding tells us that negative thoughts during strenuous exercise are not caused by the discomfort of fatigue—negative thoughts are fatigue itself.

When men and women were trained to replace those negative thoughts with positive thoughts, they felt less fatigued and (as their performance proved) they were less fatigued. This result confirms the finding of a previous study done by the same group of researchers. In that earlier study, the perception of effort during strenuous exercise was lowered when subjects replaced effort-related grimaces with relaxed facial expressions.

Think about this fascinating new research the next time you feel toasted in a hard workout or, for that matter, when you begin to feel beaten in any challenging task. Your negative thoughts and defeated body language are not the unavoidable consequences of failure—they are failure itself.

So, keep your thoughts upbeat and your posture victorious to achieve more, inside the gym and out.

Can you think of one thing right now that you could change about your attitude or posture to increase your positivity?

Share your ideas in the comments below—your comments makes us happy 🙂

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Ever notice how often discoveries about how to increase your effectiveness in both business and athletics are counter-intuitive?

SuperSystem, just like this latest nugget of training wisdom from Matt, is designed to pull surprising training insights from diverse studies so we can extrapolate what really works. Then we turn these discoveries into tools that you can easily integrate into your own training.

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