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Overcoming Mental Barriers to Your Running Enjoyment

As runners, we often face disappointments and mental stresses that not only can affect performance but can also dampen running enjoyment. In my work with athletes who range from novice runners to elite competitors, I’ve learned that it’s helpful to have some strategies to put in place ahead of time to address potential mental barriers so that you can meet each one head-on if/when they occur. Here are a few of the most common barriers that I see, and some helpful techniques to use:

Fear of Failure

Fear can drive you to a solid performance, but it can also be overwhelming.  If you’re racing, it’s often typical to run harder when scared a bit, whether fearful of not reaching a goal time, or by being passed by a competitor or teammate. If you’re a recreational runner, the fear of having an off day or being slower than anyone else in a group run can be enough to stop you from even starting your run. Regardless of goals or experience, with any given workout there may be some fear of not meeting expectations. The cost for giving into fear however is often anxiety, confidence loss, and less-than-ideal running experience.

What to Do

Instead of resisting fear, face it head-on. Decrease your own resistance to it so you control it, instead of it controlling you.  Acknowledge the fear and then take positive actions to begin to think differently. The combination of setting realistic, short-term goals, developing positive affirmations for yourself, and practicing relaxation techniques can be helpful here, along with the reminder that if you aren’t willing to risk some failure, you’ll never fully change or grow. When you make a commitment to be the best you can be, while keeping your expectations in balance, you can celebrate what you achieve rather than reinforcing what you have yet to accomplish. 

The Comparison Treadmill

It’s easy to compare yourself to faster runners and to assume that faster times will make you happier.  While comparing yourself to other runners and setting realistic goals can help to motivate you, someone else is always faster, so this comparative dance can be futile when taken too far.  The stark reality is that all runners are not created equal, as we don’t all start off with the same genes or have the same time and resources for training throughout our lives.

What to Do

Completing challenging workouts is commendable for everyone who commits to this effort, regardless of pace. So, if you routinely make self-defeating and futile comparisons between your pace ranges and those of much faster runners, stop yourself ASAP, put your effort level in perspective. Then enjoy using that very valuable self-comparison to your earlier season effort levels to motivate yourself.

The Perfection Myth

We can all get caught up in believing that we’ll someday run the perfect race or workout on the perfect course on the perfect day. If we can do that, then we’ll run the way we’ve always known we could.  I find it’s far better to strive for excellence, not perfection, and to accept imperfect success.

What to Do

With some designated pace workouts, the goal is to get as close as possible to nailing a specific pace. If this doesn’t happen for any number of reasons, you’ll still walk away with a productive and successful run if you’re brave enough to evaluate your workout from the standpoint of what you had wanted to accomplish out there… (To feel calmer? Stoke some energy for the day ahead? See a new city on foot? Enjoy the solitude of nature?) …and to then assess what you learned from it for the next time around.

Fast Time Syndrome

For some, one of the great delights in our sport is running fast times and setting PRs…. But you can’t run one every time out.

What to Do

I encourage you to enjoy your workouts and races even if the result isn’t a time you would gloat over. Look for rewards other than the fast time; gaining strength and fitness for upcoming key races, having fun taking part in your sport either solo or with others…. Define success with a broad brush while you put your best self on the line…Without one single mental barrier in your way!


By Pam Landry

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