When I started blogging about running this year, the voice in my head was my biggest enemy. It was constantly nagging, trying to convince me that I was not good enough to be writing about running.
This voice told me that I am not a good writer, that I don’t know enough about running, and who I am anyway to think I would be qualified to write about this topic?
Despite my two successful ultramarathon-finishes in 2021 (I podiumed at both races), that voice kept insisting that I wasn’t a real runner.
After all, I sucked when we had to run at school. I sucked in every athletic discipline we had to go through in school. And once I discovered running in my early 20’s, the colossal imposter sitting on my shoulder was relentlessly rehearsing all those reasons why I am not a “real” runner.
If you, too, are riddled with self-doubt and think you are not a “real” runner, then rest assured that you are not alone. On the contrary, many athletes are familiar with imposter syndrome. Some learn how to deal with it and become better runners in the process.
If you, too, want to gain running confidence, set and achieve bigger running goals and get more enjoyment out of your running, read on.
This article will detail how imposter syndrome sabotages your running and give you five actionable strategies you can immediately apply to shut down the negative voices questioning your self-worth as a runner. Let’s get started.
What Is Imposter Syndrome, And How Can It Sabotage Your Running?
In 1978 the psychologists Dr. Pauline Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes published their article “Imposter syndrome in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention.” In it, they define the “impostor phenomenon” as “internal experience of intellectual phoniness.” The person experiencing impostor syndrome generally attributes any success to outward circumstances. They feel that they are not that good and are afraid that their peers will soon find that out. They are worried that their perceived inadequacies will soon be revealed.
Suppose you experience imposter syndrome as a runner. In that case, you could have a great training season leading up to a race, with all objective markers pointing to “you crushed it in training,” and yet you will go into the race riddled with self-doubt, believing you are actually not that good.
As a result, you may hold back more than necessary, and hence your true potential will not come through in the race. Or you may unconsciously self-sabotage before a race by having a few too many drinks the night before or eating foods that don’t agree with you.
Heck, you might decide last minute not even to toe the starting line because you are afraid everyone will see how bad a runner you truly are. Not that I am speaking of experience or anything .
Not dealing with impostor syndrome effectively can stunt your growth as a runner. You will have a tough time overcoming challenges and obstacles because you see any adversity as proof of your shortcomings. You are afraid to explore the limits of your potential and to expand your comfort zone. You avoid signing up for events you’d love to do but will challenge you in new ways. In short, you hinder your ability to learn and grow as an athlete.
So how do you silence that impostor devil sitting on your shoulder? Try the strategies I outline below and develop your true potential as a runner.
5 Ways To Triumph Over Imposter Syndrome As a Runner
1. Own Your Successes And Celebrate Your Wins
I value humbleness and consider myself to be a very humble person. However, there is a fine line between being humble and downplaying one’s successes. If you are in the habit of attributing your successes to luck or outside influences, like weak competitors, you must celebrate your victories. No matter how small or insignificant they may seem to you.
Did you just finish that 20-mile long run? Celebrate it, no matter how long it took you to complete the run.
Did you stick to not drinking alcohol during the week? Congratulate yourself on your success.
Have you finished your first ultramarathon? Give yourself a massive pat on the back.
2. Learn To Separate Your Thoughts From Facts
Learning to separate my subjective thoughts from objective facts has been an essential part of my healing journey from severe social anxiety. When you understand that the opinions you form in your head are not facts, you open up a world of possibilities.
You stop limiting yourself despite the negative voice in your head telling you that you can’t. You go ahead and take on new challenges, even though the inner critic shouts at you that you are not and never will be good enough to accomplish the goals you dream about achieving.
Whenever you catch yourself going into a negative thought spiral, criticizing yourself, putting yourself down, or otherwise engaging in negative self-talk, stop for a moment, take a deep breath and say to yourself: “these are just thoughts; they are not reality.”
You may feel silly at first and feel uncomfortable, but with practice comes knowledge. The more you practice separating your self-critical thoughts from facts, the easier it will become.
3. Take A Break From Social Media
What used to be the gym or the local running track is now social media: a place to compare yourself against others.
Despite what pseudo-philosophical inspo-memes try to tell you, comparing yourself to others is not inherently wrong. In fact, it’s human nature. It has many positives, like showing you what is possible and igniting your hunger for a better life or work situation.
The problems arise when you attach meaning to what other people’s accomplishments and lives mean for you. When you hang out too much on social media, you can start to lose sight of the good you have in your life and the successes you already had.
One issue with social media is that you only see what the person who owns the account wants you to see. Plus, you are in a position to compare yourself to the whole world. It is easy to become overwhelmed with the vast amount of comparisons that you can make.
Try to limit the amount of time you spend on it and be intentional when you hop on Facebook or Instagram. Take regular breaks of several days in a row, where you don’t spend any time on social media at all.
4. Create A Running Alter Ego
As described in a previous article, a running alter ego is a persona you develop specifically for your running pursuits. Essentially you are creating a role you play when you hit the trails, road, or track (or wherever you prefer to run).
Creating a character you play helps you from disconnecting your sense of self-worth from your running performances. If you are a very timid person and tend to prioritize other people, creating a running alter ego can help you be more brave and self-confident during a race.
To get started, take a sheet of paper or open up your favorite word processing software and outline the characteristics of your ideal running self.
How would you characterize yourself if you could wave a magic wand and transform into the runner you wish to be? How would you approach your training? How would you act in a race when you are struggling with a side stitch or a blister? How would you react when a competitor passes you?
Then try to live that persona during your training and racing. It may seem silly at first but try to implement the alter ego concept into your life and watch how your running transforms.
5 Join Running Groups That Include Athletes With Varying Skill Levels
If you constantly surround yourself with people of the same abilities, it is easy to get stuck.
Likewise, it is easy to fall into a pattern of believing you suck as a runner when everyone in your local running group seems to be faster than you.
On the other hand, if everyone in your local running group is a beginner and you know that you can outrun them easily, your imposter will have an easy time convincing you, you are not that good. It will tell you that “You can only outrun those people because they are complete newbies. Just wait until race day, and everyone will see how much you suck.”
The best way to avoid both scenarios is, of course, to join a running group where people with various skill levels run. Or to run with different people at different times. This will help keep you aware that there will always be better runners than you and people who won’t run as fast as you.
Likewise, you will have skills that others will envy.
The truth is that you are not superior or inferior to anyone. As Maxwell Maltz used to say, “you are you, that’s all.”
This is true for running and any other area of your life where you might struggle with imposter syndrome.
If you too have that little imposter devil sitting on your shoulder, implement the strategies outlined in this article, and over time its screams will be no more than little whispers, and you know how to dismiss them with a smile.