Today I want to share some experiences that I have had as a runner, as well as a running coach when it comes to dealing with self-doubt, or questioning your ability as a runner.
Sometimes your biggest obstacle in marathon training is yourself.
I see this phenomenon with almost every new training group I coach. I will be running with someone from the group and I’ll mention something along the lines of:
Me: “How is your training going? Are you ready to run 7 miles today?”
Them: “I don’t know, we’ll see. I can’t see myself running 7 miles let alone 26! I am not a very good runner…”
Me: “What makes you think you are not a good runner? How far did you run yesterday?”
Them: “Oh I ran 5 miles yesterday.” (or something similar)
Me: “So you completed the run then?”
Them: “Yeah, but it was tough and I had to stop and walk once or twice and I am pretty slow” (or something similar)
Me: “Do you fall a lot, or run off the side of the trail, or accidentally run into people, cars or buses?
Them: “What the …, huh!?!” (picture a weird look on their face as obviously I have gone off the deep end on them)
Me: “Listen, as long as you can put one foot in front of the other, and repeat over and over again until you get from point a to point b regardless of how fast you are or how you feel you are “supposed” to look, you are a good runner. Oh, and stop being so hard on yourself. Your comparing yourself to others again….”
I think for many, self doubt, whether related to running in general or something else, is one of the single-most, self-limiting obstacles a person faces.
Some people are optimists, others are pessimists, and most of us are somewhere in between. So I am going forward with the assumption that most of us, occasionally question what we are doing and whether or not it is worth it.
I have people every now and then comment along the lines of “You make this look easy. I don’t know how you are able to do it.
This always catches me off guard. I usually respond with something like, “Thank you! That is awesome of you to say that. But it is not any easier for me than what it can be for you. You can make it look easy too.”
The reality is that even though I have been through this before, and that I coach, it doesn’t feel as easy inside as I may show on the outside. I often find myself questioning my own abilities and struggling with self doubt. Did I do enough? Did I train enough? Did I eat the right things? etc. It doesn’t matter who you are. If you are human, you occasionally struggle with self doubt and fear.
So, how do we deal with this as runners?
You won’t be cured of self-doubt or any of the anxiety that may come from it, overnight. But overcoming the negative thoughts that come as a result of it can be dealt with through training. Yes, I said training. Call it happy thoughts, call it mental toughness, call it positive mindset, call it what you want, it is an important part of mental training.
A positive mental attitude will make a big difference on race day, or even if you make it to race day.
It is sad, but I see about a 30-40% dropout rate in my running club during each new training cycle. Somewhere 4-6 weeks into training only about 70% of the runners I started with are still there. By race day, maybe only 50-60% have completed training. I used to take this personally and figured people just did not like me or like the running club. However, after talking to other coaches and running club directors, I have found that my numbers are normal. Some see even higher drop out rates. I take the time to get to know every single runner the best I can so I can keep encouraging them throughout the process, but this is not always possible.
The 4 biggest reasons runners drop out of marathon training is:
- They did not realize the level of personal effort, or time commitment needed.
- They signed up on a whim. I see this around New Years when we kick off our Winter training.
- Some mistakenly come to the conclusion that they just aren’t a good enough runner, or not destined to become a distance runner.
- They are sidelined by an injury, and feel like they are too far behind to catch up. (Unlike the reasons above, many of these runners do come back the following season)
Here is an interesting observation on marathon training and motivation and one that surprises me to this day.
Notice that motivation is not listed above as one of the reasons for dropping out. I am sure it is a contributing factor and I am pretty sure it is an underlying reason. I do hear the talk of a “lack of motivation” from some runners during actual runs where they describe how they are feeling that particular day or that particular week and had to grind it out to get past it. But still, lack of motivation has never been mentioned as an excuse for quitting at least not to my face.
I have no scientific study to share, but I think it has to do with the fact that I try to set every runner’s expectation of marathon training on Day one. I explain the difference between motivation and commitment. There is a difference in my opinion.
Motivation is a “feeling” that will come and go.
I get motivated (or rather inspired) by watching other people do amazing things. Or I find motivation comes as a result of some cause/effect. For example, when the weather gets cooler after a hot summer, I find a little extra pep in my step. Often, just hanging around others who are a positive influence or are positive people just rubs off on me.
Commitment is doing everything necessary to ensure you stay on track regardless of how motivated you feel.
If you feel your motivation waning, commitment is going and doing something about even if you may not want to. By this I mean, go and create the conditions that will get you motivated. This is why I am a big fan of training partners, coaches, and running clubs. If you approach it correctly, they can help you through any rough patches. But, be careful, you have to surround yourself with the ones who are positive influences. I have some “negative” personalities in my own running club. They are great people, just a little harder to run with because they complain about things. I am sure, I have not had the best of days on some mornings and probably have not lived up to my advice here. Not everyday can be a Mayberry Day. (Sorry. I inserted a reference to the Andy Griffith Show here, showing my age. (reruns). The idea being that not everything can always be perfect.
So how do we redirect our thinking and create a positive situation?
Some of you may be thinking, ’Oh, come on Steve, self-doubt is normal, just get on with it already and move on.. suck it up’.
… and this response would be a perfect example of classic “redirection” which is the next point in my post.
Redirection is a great technique on dealing with negative thoughts that occasionally enter our brains. Even those of us who have run marathons, often have some level of anxiety in your life around running. It may be fear of bonking and hitting a wall, fear of fading at the end of a race, fear of going out too fast, fear of pooping your pants, or fear of getting sick or injured right before a race. Yes, people have a fear of pooping their pants during a race. It happens. Not often, but it can happen.
While all of these are legitimate fears, some are outside of your control. Weather and illness is something you have no control over. Therefore, there is nothing you can do so you need to be able to put those out of the question immediately.
From self doubt to belief. Getting to your positive!
I did not have much self-belief the very first time I trained for a marathon until I completed the twenty mile long run in training. In fact, I think that is why the twenty mile long run is often a key training distance in marathon training. The twenty mile threshold is the distance where most people cross over from a lack of confidence to thinking, “Hey this is possible I can do this!”
For you it may come sooner or later. The need for twenty mile training runs is often debated in the marathon training world. Some feel that you should never go past twenty miles, some think you should. Some, like me.. like to see two, twenty plus mile runs…
I include a twenty mile and a twenty-two mile run with a drop back week in between if your on my 20 week marathon training program.
Why? Confidence. While ‘physically’ you are certainly ready at the twenty mile mark to run a marathon, getting that second twenty-two mile run in gives you big time confidence, especially if the twenty mile, or eighteen mile run did not go as well as you would like.
The problem with negative emotion is that it’s toxic. It will grow like weeds in your mind and strangle your peace of mind along with your will to do anything positive for yourself. When you’re in a negative mindset, you’re drawn to negative influences. You won’t run. You will eat like crap. You’ll start telling yourself that you won’t be able to finish a marathon. For some, these thoughts come during the first long run that doesn’t go as planned, or at the first sign of a tweaked muscle, or pain that may pop up. When doubts linger or are allowed to fester, they become your limiting beliefs. They will hold you back and potentially lead you to quit.
They also snowball. When something goes wrong, all the previous bad thoughts often storm back in to the forefront of your mind to mock you and make you question your weaknesses.
So here is your prescription. I wish I could give you a magic pill, but there isn’t one. However, I can give you a classic move that seems to come straight out of a Karate Kid movie.
- Deflect, Deflect, Deflect. Do NOT allow these negative thoughts to even take root in your brain. Do not even entertain the thought!
- Redirect. As soon as you get any inkling of a bad thought coming, redirect your thoughts to your iPod or force a new conversation with your training partner. If you training partner starts voicing negative thoughts out loud during a run, help them out and immediately change the topic. Let each other know ahead of time that if things start going bad on a run, they have permission to change the subject and redirect anything negative.
Accept that self doubt will never completely go away. The longer you have allowed the thoughts to continue, the harder it is to change. For example, if you concede you’re a crappy runner, then you’ll start to believe it. Worse, you will become a crap runner.
The reality is that you were NEVER were a crappy runner to begin with. Seriously. Your running form, your anatomical build, your genetics are not your problem. Maybe you won’t be an elite athlete. Maybe you will never qualify for Boston. That does not mean you are any less of a runner. Your problem is your perspective. It’s in your head. Remember, doubts feed on doubt. They become bigger doubts. The more you feed them, the greater they become. They become so powerful and self-reinforcing that they eventually morph into your worldview. They become you. Or rather, you become them.
The biggest obstacle for me in those first few months of marathon training was the belief that I could work up to the distance needed to complete the marathon. I never really believed that I could become a marathoner. It seemed to be too long, too soon for my mind to comprehend. But by surrounding myself with others who had been there before and reenforce that what I was feeling was normal, helped me complete my training and led me to complete my race as well. They encouraged me to continue training and take my focus off the big picture, but rather look at the here and now and do what was expected of me THAT WEEK… Get through that week! Then the next, then the next and so on and one day I wake up and it is race day. It worked!
You can overcome self doubt in training, in racing, in life, wherever it rears its ugly head. It just takes effort! You just need to start small and believe. You won’t master it overnight and I am not sure you completely master it unless you are a monk or something and can meditate 24 hours a day, but you can make big improvements and learn how to deal with it.
I am curious as to what works for you. Do you struggle with self doubt or negative thinking? For those that do and have overcome it, or learned how to deal with it, what worked for you? Tips and Thoughts?
Have a great week!