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Self-talk can make exercise seem not as tough

Two weeks ago I told you, “If you want to change your body, you need to change your mind.”

Then you read about how the bodies of 46 research subjects changed when their minds were changed through acts of deception. First, researchers led the subjects to erroneously believe the milkshake they were about to drink was high in calories by having them read a detailed account of its ingredients beforehand.

As a result, after drinking it their bodies produced far less ghrelin - the hormone that signals to your brain the need to eat - than they should have.

Yet when the subjects were deceived a second time by reading how another milkshake was low in calories - though it contained the same ingredients and calories as the first one - ghrelin production increased.

Moral to the story: There’s a power of good in the power of the mind. You just need to be able to tap into it without being lied to.

One way to do so is through self-talk.

According to McLeod Health.com, self-talk is simply repeating certain statements during exercise or athletic competition to improve focus, slow the mental process, “replace negative thinking with more positive messages” and “devote more ‘power’ to the specific task at hand.” Somewhat akin to meditation, you create a simple phrase encapsulating what you want to accomplish and say it repeatedly before and during your attempt.

If you’re a serious bicyclist who tends to fall behind the group on slight climbs because you stand and mash when you should sit and spin, for instance, the self-talk saying could be “Sit and spin, sit and spin.”

Now I’m not the sort who usually buys into something as Tony Robbinsesque as self-talk. In fact, based solely on the way McLeod Health.com explains it - they suggest a basketball player with foul-shooting woes say, “I’ve made this shot before, and it’s doable,” - I would’ve never tried it.

But I learned about self-talk by reading Alex Hutchinson’s account of a research study done by Samuele Marcora and colleagues in Endure, a book about exceeding perceived athletic limits.

The researchers took 24 volunteers and had them cycle to the point of exhaustion. Next, they showed half how to enhance performance using positive self-talk and gave them time to develop personally meaningful sayings and practice using them.

Two weeks later when all 24 again cycled to exhaustion, the 12 who incorporated self-talk lasted 18 percent longer. In my cycling-centric mind, an improvement of 18 percent while riding really hard is nothing to sneeze at.

It’s more like something to die for.

So I just had to experiment with self-talk.

I decided to once again do a 30-minute, close to all-out effort designed to be done on the wind trainer I own, a Cateye Cyclosimulator 1500. The workout was created as a way to simulate the distance, topography and intensity of the final and fast 12.5 miles of that well-known Lehigh Valley training ride called The Derby.

I hadn’t done the workout in about four years, quite frankly, because it had become too depressing. Each time, it seemed, I’d cover a bit less distance and record a slower miles-per-hour average.

Before trying it again a few weeks ago, however, I selected a personally meaningful saying and practiced it beforehand. I then said it over and over anytime I felt fatigued during the workout.

The numbers I saw 30 minutes later made me a believer in self-talk. Compared to my final attempt at age 57, I had covered .21 miles more, gone .42 miles per hour faster.

While I will admit to additional motivation this time - I needed to succeed or junk this column - the sensations I experienced during the 30-minute effort told me self-talk is legit.

When I would see my speed going down and feel my body tightening up, for instance, I would relax my facial muscles, smile - something else I learned to do from reading Hutchinson’s book - and say, “It’s all downhill from here.”

I decided upon that saying because it was said to me at the top of the final climb the very first time I won a hilly road race on a solo breakaway by the driver of the lead vehicle. He then hit the horn three times, gave me the thumbs-up, and sped away.

Strangely enough, when I started making a horn noise along with my self-talk, I experienced greater power.

Now you might feel awkward going “honk, honk, honk” in a health club - or even engaging in self-talk at all. If so, consider what Hutchinson says about it in the Afterword of Endure.

That even though it seems a “fancy name” for “cliched advice,” self-talk is still his best answer when people ask him what to do to supersede their previous limits.