Mental Barriers

Not too long ago, while talking with a coworker about how I was training for a marathon, he made the following comment:

“Well, you certainly don’t look like you would run marathons.”

It was a simple comment, and I know he was just being tactless and didn’t mean to insult me. However, the instant he said it, years of insecurities about my body came rushing back. He may as well have just called me fat, for the effect it had on my self-esteem.

That comment is just one of many thoughts that runs through my head when I am having a bad day or a tough run. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have been doing some thinking about this negativity and where it comes from. For me, and probably for many athletes, a lot of the challenge in improving is mental. Negative thoughts about yourself will only make you feel worse and hinder your progress. I personally want to improve my mindset, both for training and in everyday life, so I decided to really focus on the sources of my negative thoughts:

1. Comments or Criticism from others:

Comments like the example above, generally from non-runners or non-athletes, are probably the most common that I hear. Most of them are related to how fast or how far I run, such as “Oh, a 10 minute pace is slow” or “That’s not very far at all, I have a friend who runs marathons and runs a lot more”. These are, in my mind, the most irritating. After all, if running (or whatever activity you do) is so easy, why aren’t they doing it? Luckily, they are also generally the most easy to brush off. It’s easier to take comments with a grain of salt when a person is talking about how fast they could run in high school when they are currently over 50 and sedentary.

Runners and other athletes can also be the source of criticism and negative comments. While generally considered unsportsmanlike conduct, that doesn’t always discourage disparaging comments about another athlete’s performance. It’s tough to feel good about your accomplishments when there’s someone always trying to one up you. The last thing you want to hear after a run that was at a good pace for you is someone telling you they ran that distance yesterday, but at a faster pace. The key here is to avoid these people if possible and surround yourself with people who are motivating and supportive. Another critical point is that you need to focus on your own abilities rather than those of someone else. Which leads me to…

2. Comparing yourself to other people:

I started reading healthy living blogs a few months ago, particularly those focusing on running. For the most part, they have been a good influence in my life, motivating me to push myself harder and aim for harder goals. Like many things, though, reading these blogs is a double-edged sword. There are a ton of bloggers out there who are faster than me, train harder than me, are thinner than me, etc. Their recaps of training runs and races are awesome to read, and it’s great to see them excited. But all the same, it is discouraging to see them refer to my “tough pace” as a slow, easy pace.

I also struggle with comparing myself to people I know in real life, as well. For example, my sister in law ran track and cross country for her university. If you’ve read my “Running” section, you’ll know that I lost all but one of my junior varsity level races in high school track, so I don’t think I will ever achieve her speed. It makes me uncomfortable to talk about how far I ran (or especially how long it took me) because she is a better runner than me,

When I start to get down on myself because I think about other people running faster or farther, I really just need to focus on myself and my achievements. Now, I may not be the fastest runner out there, but 5 years ago I couldn’t run a quarter mile without needing to stop. Two and a half years ago I ran my first marathon, and then PRed in the next year’s race by 45 minutes. By “competitive runner” standards, I am still slow. I don’t run ultramarathons (yet). But I am improving myself one run at a time. Whatever anyone else does or can do is irrelevant.

3. Expecting too much, too soon:

I trained for my first marathon with the goal of crossing the finish line alive. My second marathon, I had the goal of finishing faster, but there was no speedwork involved. Now, I have set the long term goal of qualifying for Boston, which will require me to run a marathon over an hour faster than I ever have before. I am doing a lot of speed training, and have definitely improved, but sometimes I think that I’m not improving fast enough.

Deep down I know that I can’t just wake up one day able to run a 3:40 marathon. I know that I won’t always have good training runs or races, and that getting faster and stronger is a slow and sometimes painful process. That logic often evades me, though, when I start out a run to fast and crash at the end, or just have a bad running day in general. I start to think that I will never get fast enough to qualify for Boston, and that I will always be slow. Those thoughts seem to turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy because my body follows my mind, and then I let myself slow down or walk when my body is physically capable of continuing on.

I am going to try and focus on being more positive about my training. Running is something that I do because I really enjoy it and because it makes me feel good. If I can push out the negativity related to what other people do or say, and focus on doing what I can in terms of my training, then I think I can become a better runner.

What are your biggest mental barriers when it comes to exercise?


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One thought on “Mental Barriers

  1. First of all – you should feel REALLY good about how quickly you’ve improved and how quick you actually are! But I know how you feel. I read those blogs too and feel slow. I try to remind myself to include all the people that don’t run at all when comparing myself to others.

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