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7 Common Fears for Runners (and How to Overcome Them)

Running Race Fears

Illustration: Pond5

Running is 90 percent mental, or so the saying goes. And if you’ve ever bonked, DNFed, or suffered through a bad track workout, then you know this to be true. Few other sports can challenge your brain as much as your muscles, or offer as many emotional highs as lows. So it’s no surprise that to be successful on the pavement, it’s about far more than putting one foot in front of the other. But how do you stay motivated, fight the negative self-talk, and stop comparing yourself to others? We called in the experts for tips on how to overcome the most common mental barriers that come their way. Read on for seven strategies to boost your mental muscle. 

All in Your Head?

Running is truly a mind-body sport, says Mindy Solkin, coach and founder of New York City’s Running Center. “If the body isn’t cooperating, you have to use some self-talk to get through it and fight on,” she says. “Running is a self-propelling sport.”

Texas-based counselor and sports psychology consultant Adrienne Langelier, MA, LPC, agrees. “Running is probably one of the most difficult mental sports around,” she says. “With other sports you have equipment that might come into play with your performance. With running, you are the equipment.” 

Both Solkin and Langelier say there are common roadblocks that can test a runner’s mental fortitude. Here’s how these experts recommend you bust through the barriers when they rear their ugly heads.

Running Fears

Photo: Pond5

Running Scared: 7 Tips to Persevere

“Do it for yourself, and remember that the feeling you get when you finish makes it all worth it.” 

Roadblock #1: Motivation to get out the door
The fix: Langelier says it’s important to understand what your motivational character is. “If you are intrinsically motivated, you won’t struggle as much because you run because you love the sport,” she says. “But if it’s an extrinsic motivation, such as running on a charity team or to lose weight, it might be tougher.” In this case, opt for tried-and-true strategies like lining up a partner to meet you, or setting out your running gear the night before so you’re ready to get out the door as soon as you wake up. 

Roadblock #2: Fear of feeling/looking slow
The fix: Start by not calling yourself a ‘jogger,’ Solkin says. “Think of yourself as a strong person out there getting it done no matter what.” And if competition isn’t your thing, that’s OK, too. The make-up of today’s runners has changed from uber-competitive to more social and fitness-driven, Solkin says. “Most runners aren’t in it to win it these days. Do it for yourself, and remember that the feeling you get when you finish makes it all worth it.” 

Roadblock #3: Entering a race undertrained
The fix: Rather than worrying about what you missed, “Focus on the training you did do,” says Langelier. Remember the highlights from those early morning runs, like that really great race-pace run a few weeks back. Those milestones will help boost your confidence when you’re feeling ill-equipped. On the flip side, if necessary, give yourself permission to adjust your goals if the training just hasn’t been there. The key is being realistic with what you’re setting out to do, Langelier says. In other words, don’t expect a PR when you haven’t trained for one. Readjust your goals and go into the race with more manageable expectations.

Roadblock #4: Fear of missing a big PR
The fix: Remember that no one race defines you as a person or a runner, says Langelier. Even the top elites have off days but they don’t let that defeat them. Take Meb Keflezighi, for example, who was far off goal pace at last year’s New York City Marathon. Rather than dropping out, he found a “citizen” runner and helped him achieve his goal. Keflezighi famously went on to win this year’s Boston Marathon, much to everyone’s surprise. While you don’t want one race to define you, you should also be optimistic, says Langelier “Be open to the possibility of getting that goal,” she adds. “Put that into your self-talk while you are out there.”

Roadblock #5: Falling apart mid-race
The fix: When things aren’t quite falling into place, hone in on the elements of the race that are in your control. “Focus on the process, not just the performance,” Langelier says. It can be tough to stay in the moment, but paying attention to your form, your breathing, and your cadence can help take some of the pressure off, she says.

“Accept that there will be faster people. Let that push you rather than make you feel inferior.”

Roadblock #6: Fear of failure
The fix: “A lot of us have big, specific goals, and when we don’t reach them, see that as a failure,” says Langelier. But it’s important to have a back-up plan, such as a B or C goal. “Use it if it’s clear you’re not going to hit your [initial] goal,” Solkin says. “You can also change your focus to ‘what will I still get out of this race?’” If you’re running a marathon, for instance, it’s the satisfaction of completing 26.2 miles, a big accomplishment no matter what.

Roadblock #7: Comparing yourself to other runners
The fix: Focus on where you have improved rather than where you want to be. Stay in the now and enjoy the moment. “Accept that there will be faster people,” says Langelier. “Let that push you rather than make you feel inferior.”

The bottom line, says Langelier, is that all runners should give themselves permission to steer away from the negative areas and focus instead on the positives. “Know thyself,” she counsels. “Prepare to use your strengths and address your weaknesses.”

When you do, you might just discover you’re having more fun than you ever expected.

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