Shushing the Doubting Voices

I don’t know how much I’ve written about this, but I really struggle with confidence in my running. There are voices in my head that are constantly telling me that I’m not good enough, lean enough, strong enough or disciplined enough to become the kind of runner I want to be. When something goes a little wrong during a workout or race the voices pop up and start saying all kinds of mean things to me. I know I’m not alone– heck, Runners World devoted about 3,000 words to Kara Goucher’s struggle with the same things.

I’ve realized that if I want to continue to improve and PR that I am going to have to deal with the voices in my head. I am by no means done dealing with my running doubts and fears– far from it, I think I’m at the beginning, but I think there are some things you can do to get them to quiet down.

The first is to identify where they are coming from. For me I think they have several roots. The first one– I was not a good runner when I started. My first half-marathon was in the 2:24 range (compared wiht my 1:49 PR) and I was significantly heavier than I am now. I didn’t see myself as a strong runner and I identify much more closely with those at the back of the pack than those at the front. Even though I’m usually in the top 1o% at races now. I just still see myself as the new, struggling, chubby kid in an ugly cotton tshirt.

Secondly, I never really set out to improve as much as I did. As success (relatively speaking here, I still have a long way to go before I’ll consider myself fast) came, I almost didn’t believe it. To this day when I run a fast mile or good race I think the clock or watch is lying. I’ve exceeded the expectations I originally had and I tend to live in fear that I’ve hit my physiological limit. Which, of course, I haven’t. But that doesn’t mean I don’t still feel like a poser and get really nervous at the start line of a race or tough interval workout.

I’ve developed a few strategies over the years that seem to help me believe I can get faster and get me through a workout. First, I stop the negative thoughts. I just silence them. I acknowledge the fear and remind myself of what is true (your workout went great last week, think how far you’ve come, you are fit and you’ve trained for this, etc). If you repeat negative thoughts over and over you are giving them a reason to stick around and worse, you may eventually believe them. So when I start thinking I don’t belong somewhere or I’m slow I just stop that thought.

Secondly, I repeat a phrase or word that is meaningful to me. I’ll say things like, you are strong and disciplined, no one trains harder than you (a lie but I like it anyway), toughen up, you’ve got this, dont’ be afraid, etc. I find it works to have 2-3 simple phrases or words you can use. During marathon training I’d often think “Boston” in my head which reminded me of my larger goal.

Third, I remind myself of past successes and how hard work got me there. I remind myself of all the times I was hurting during workouts and how it paid off in various races. There are a few breakthrough races that I enjoy looking  back on (sadly I have not had one in awhile but whatever…) but I almost enjoy looking back on the training more. The races were more like the payoff/celebration of the weeks of hard work. Then, I remind myself of all the recent hard work and how that is paying off in that moment.

When I’m struggling in workouts (opposed to races) I remind myself of the bigger picture. Why am I out here? What is my goal? What have I done in the past that worked? Setting smaller goals (run my 800s 2-3 seconds faster than last time, run 1/2 mile longer tempo run) allows me to see progress and keeps me accountable. I also remind myself that struggling and breaking through pain in workouts will allow me to do so in a race. If you don’t practice hurting and overcoming, you won’t know how to do it on race day.

Sometimes, and this is really deep, I’ll imagine that whoever it is I’m dating or interested in is standing on the track or road watching me work out. I wouldn’t want to wimp out in front of a good looking, smart, funny dude or show weakness so I imagine that he’s standing there watching which gives me a kick. This doesn’t work as well as other strategies but sometimes you just need to imagine hotness to break you through. Sometimes it’s a celebrity. I’ve worked out with Justin Timberlake before. I think this dates back to my high school track years where there were literally cute boys on the track. Or the not so distant past when I was trying to show off for a guy on my running team. Oh who am I kidding? I run fast when he shows up.

But really, there is always a point in a hard race or workout where I want to quit. At the end of the day, reaching your goals hurts and requires sacrifice of oxygen, muscle comfort and energy. It’s always worth it but it’s necessary to remind yourself that the actual act of accomplishing your goal is never going to be easy. If it’s easy, your goal was too modest. I always remind myself that I want to cross the finish line knowing I did absolutely everything I could to leave everything on the course. I don’t want regrets.

And finally… I love all the “ask me anything” posts people have been doing. So, if you have a question, email it to or leave a comment and I’ll answer it!


8 responses to “Shushing the Doubting Voices

  1. I think I can relate to all of these doubts and fears – many of us can. It can be hard to really acknowledge the changes / improvements we’ve made when we’ve spent so long thinking we’re not good enough. Keep working at the positive thoughts though – you’re doing great. And breakthrough races are more worthwhile after a dry spell ..

  2. I can certainly relate. I’m recovering from a knee injury so I need to work really hard to not get nervous and “anticipate” the pain, which makes me get all tight and then inevitably brings on the pain I was fearing. Do you have any tactics for dealing with pre-race jitters? I ran my first marathon in Oct and was a nervous wreck the week before! Now I’m training for Boston in April and the training runs are fine because of all my fellow central park runners, but I’m nervous about going to a course I’ve never seen and want to avoid the anxiety. Thanks!

  3. great post… i think we can definitely all relate in some form or another. the dry spell will be over soon, it just makes the great races even better 🙂

  4. We can all relate. I remember a 5 mile race a year or so ago, where I was pushing for a PR. I was rested, ready and psyched for it. I had a hard time keeping my pace, and then I cracked. I had to stop and walk and come home knowing I had failed. But had I really failed? I just didn’t accomplish my goal.

    I remember that race even today. The feeling of “failure” as I knew I was broken. I have since done a lot more training, more thinking and more racing. The key for me is to push through that break point. Inevitably, on the other side, I find it is OK. yes I might slow down. yes, I might not set the PR. But I will finish and I will be OK with it.

    As for training, well, showing up is 90% of it. A bad run is better than no run. And the long run incremental difference between a bad run and a good run is basically zero. A longer term horizon helps me.

  5. I love your blog; it’s one of the first I started following eons ago so I just like reading and learning and getting inspired from you…no need to ask any questions :). I constantly question every single thing about my running – it’s amazing how it’s more of a mental game for me then a physical one. Happy Weekend (almost).

  6. You make some excellent points there, Amy! I have many similar fears mainly because I haven’t been able to do any solid runs/races because of the weather! I also have trouble silencing the negative voices a lot of the times too! I think no matter how fast you are, you always have doubts. That will always be the nature of our sport. Great post!

  7. I totally struggle with negative thoughts too. It sounds like you’ve worked really hard to overcome them. I’m happy for you!

    I like what you said about repeating something positive to yourself. I do this on long runs, and the mantra actually seems to help me find my groove.

  8. I agree that we all struggle with ‘how good’ we are as runners over periods of time and I think that in the end, it reminds me why I run in the first place. I was never really that into team sports (other than watching them) and the reason I love running is because it’s really a competition with just myself and my own times. Especially for a ‘slower’ runner, I really have to be out there because of the love of running….a BQ is a VERY long ways away for me and really, it’s about finding a groove, a euphoria, and love for pounding the pavement.

    Because let’s face it – anyone who isn’t a runner thinks we are just plain nuts.

    So remember what you love about this, that your body and your blessed legs can do this and that you. are. a. great. runner.

    Anytime you question that, think of how far you’ve come. You’ve had an amazing journey in running and don’t you forget it.

    (Sorry for the long-ass comment! hahahah clearly this post struck a cord with me this morning!)

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