If your inner dialogue during your runs is getting a little cranky, know you’re not alone. Every runner has self-defeating, self-doubting thoughts at some point during a training session. What separates a life-long healthy runner from someone who deserts the sport or who logs miles to burn calories is the way we speak to ourselves throughout a run.
If you fall into any of the self-talk traps listed below, two sports mental consultants have advice for how to pull yourself out of the self-talk rut:
Almost every runner has moments of doubt throughout their runs when you think things like, ‘I suck,’ or ‘I’ll never make it up this hill,’ or ‘why do I bother.’ Alison Pope-Rhodius, a certified mental performance consultant, wants runners to get objective: “What you want to do is counter those thoughts by asking, ‘What’s the evidence for and against this idea? What’s the evidence that you do suck? OK, show me your times that prove that.’” Keep questioning and exploring, and, she says, you’ll realize your self-flagellation isn’t as accurate as you originally believed.
Pope-Rhodius says two words runners should watch out for are ‘never’ and ‘always.’ Any time you’re using words that are definitive and imply this is how it will always be, stop and reflect because we all have agency if we want something. ‘l never break 20 minutes in a 5K,’ you might tell yourself. Think about it and reflect on whether that goal is something you really want to accomplish, then go about figuring out how to train for it. This exercise shows you saying you’ll ‘never’ be able to do something is often in your head. The same applies to if you tell yourself you ‘should’ do something: It’s always worth asking yourself ‘why?’
The perfectionist runners out there likely struggle with this type of self-talk the most. During every run do you get irritated if someone passes you? Or if you’re running with a friend, do you have to be the faster one? If you find yourself saying you ‘should be as fast as that person,’ pause. Thoughts like that can be damaging to your self-worth and rarely are they true. Pope-Rhodius urges runners to think objectively: If your running bestie is currently faster than you, is it accurate to say she will always be speedier? What if you started training more and focusing on your running fitness? You don’t know what she’s going through, either. “She might have very different goals than you,” Pope-Rhodius adds. “Besides, how helpful is it to continuously compare yourself to somebody else? Not at all.”
It’s natural to compare yourself to others, but it’s even more common to compare yourself to you. That’s right: Especially on rough days, it’s easy to compare yourself to how you ran a month ago or five years ago. Again, it’s time to look at your circumstances objectively. Has your life changed? (In 2020, everyone has a pass not to be as fast or as dedicated as their former self.) You’re not helping yourself by feeling like you’ve slowed down over the years; you’re only making progress harder. Stop comparing your past PRs to current intervals if it’s making you feel bad. A bit of ‘past performance envy’ can be motivating and insightful if your training changes, but if you find it leaves you mourning the runner you used to be, move on.
If you want to shift your language to more positive self-talk, Traci Stanard, an athletic mental consultant, recommends shifting how you speak and opting to use the second person instead of the first person. After all, we wouldn’t tell our best friend he sucks at running, right? Start referring to yourself as ‘you’ instead of ‘I,’ and give yourself a pep talk, suggests Stanard. “Saying things like ‘You got this!’ may have more power than ‘I’ve got this,’” she explains.
“I’m done” or “I can’t do it” are two classic phrases Stanard hears a lot in her practice. The simplest way to move past them is to flip the script. Because these phrases are often thought on autopilot and multiple times in each workout, it takes work to change that automation from “I quit” to “Just a little further” or “I can’t” to “I can,” but if you make the switch, you’ll be on your way to mental toughness. If you find the positive phrase too much to handle, simply focus on skipping that thought altogether.
Often, if we get down on ourselves, our brains are struggling to compute finishing the entire long run or workout. Instead of letting yourself fall into despair thinking about all the miles you have left to log, Stanard recommends focusing on the next telephone post up ahead or the next interval in the set versus the workout as a whole. “Scale back and focus on the next step. Keep it very tight to what you’re doing and what you want to be doing,” she says. (Don’t focus on how you’re feeling in the moment, simply focus on the next short task at hand.)
“Our focus tends to be on what’s holding us back rather then what could be working for us,” Stanard says. But even when we don’t feel like we ‘look like runners,’ we do know every body can be a runner’s body, and again, Stanard recommends flipping the script. Think about the ways your body serves you, both in your running and in your day-to-day life. “I always think about body fat percentage for women,” Stanard says. “Women have a slightly higher body fat composition than men on average, but that means they’re actually better suited to doing long, slow runs.”
Occasionally, your body might be begging for a break, and listening to it is important. But if you regularly find yourself making excuses to cut runs short, your mind may be throwing in the towel before your legs. “That’s common in a lot of athletic environments because if you’re pushing yourself really hard, you’ve made yourself intentionally uncomfortable,” Pope-Rhodius says. “Acknowledge that you’ve made this choice to run, that you intentionally made yourself uncomfortable. Ask, is it worth the pain that you’re currently experiencing? What’s the pleasure that you get from it?” Often, when you reframe your run in a more empowering way, you’re more willing to tick off those last couple miles and get it done.
Most of us have moments when we question why we’re even out doing this in the first place. But that feeling of hatred for the sport is normal and natural, says Pope-Rhodius. It’s also not permanent. “Just because it’s something that you enjoy overall doesn’t mean that you’ll enjoy every element of it,” she says. “Do you enjoy absolutely every single minute of every single day? If you say yes, you’re not telling the truth. You don’t get that amount of joy constantly. But is it worth it? Of course. In the moment during a run, there are elements that suck because you’re pushing your body really hard. But can you be grateful to your body instead?”
Whether you want to run your first mile or set a PR, having a plan gets you there faster. Go to the MapMyRun app, tap “Training Plans” — you’ll get a schedule and coaching tips to help you crush it.