How to deal with your negative inner voice when running

Being mentally strong enough to handle the tough days out is key to becoming a better runner

Last weekend I spent an entire long run listening to a negative voice criticise every element of my run. This enemy in my own head was so consistent and downbeat in her message that I started to believe her.

“I want to stop. I’m not fit enough. I don’t enjoy running. Not another hill.”

I could feel my confidence and posture dip with each mile as I started to accept these messages as truth. But I should have known better. I had met this inner critic many times before on the run.

Our inner critic

You may have an inner voice like this yourself. As a beginner, it can stop you from getting out the door for fear of not being a “real runner”. “You don’t look like a runner. Your pace is too slow and your breathing is too loud.” As we overcome that initial awkwardness, this unhelpful voice rears its head again as we try to build motivation and fitness: “You should stay at home, it’s raining and one more missed run won’t make a difference.” Even when we build up to running races the voice joins us at the start line: “You will never be as good as them. You are not a natural runner. You have not prepared enough.”


Holding us back

The negative voice within us seems set on holding us back by vocalising our insecurities just when we could do with a dose of enthusiasm and positivity instead. Thankfully we also have a positive, encouraging voice in there, but for most of us it tends to speak a little quieter. This inner cheerleader thinks we are amazing and can do anything we put our mind to. We might not be able to silence our inner critic, but maybe we could just turn down the volume a bit and let these more positive voices be heard. If we let the loud negative voice become our main influencer, we miss out on so much opportunity and fulfilment that running offers. What holds a lot of us back from running better or achieving new goals rests on the stories we constantly tell ourselves. Which of the voices in your head do you listen to most?

Training our head

You may think sports psychology is only for elite athletes but we can all use the tricks of the trade to help ourselves run better by training our heads to think more positively. Unless we train ourselves mentally to approach our running with a positive mindset and learn to work to encourage more enthusiasm, we risk letting these negative voices determine our running future. The constant nagging and unhelpful self-talk will drain our energy rather than push us along to our potential.

If you are filling your head with negative thoughts, this will transfer to your running performance and enjoyment. As your confidence drops, you will start to lose your posture, good technique and become heavier on your feet. We spent money, time and energy on strengthening all parts of our body to support our running, but as part of your training this season, could you set aside some time to train your head instead of your legs or your core?

A positive voice

Regardless of your running ambitions, we must take some time to fill our heads with positive images and affirmations to keep us strong, tall, confident and relaxed when we need it most. These images will get us through the tough patches of the run and out of any temporary dip in confidence and energy. Some runners stick post-it notes on walls, others use vision boards and some even have tattoos to remind them to remain positive and focused.

Get inspired and take a little time to create some positive lines that you believe and that will motivate and inspire you to keep on running. Without travelling down the tattoo route, you can simply write your running mantra on the back your hand if it helps keep you positive on the run. Simple mantras like “one mile at a time” or “I can do it” have provided great focus for runners who get distracted by negativity along the route.

Lessons learnt

In hindsight, the reason my inner critic came running with me last weekend was because I didn’t have the ideal build-up and preparation to the long run. I wasn’t in the right frame of mind. You don’t really need to hear all my excuses, but I have plenty. In a nutshell, I was tired, I hadn’t eaten well and I was running an unfamiliar hilly route. Instead of accepting these factors and lowering my expectations for the run, I allowed that pessimistic running buddy to lecture me the whole way around.

Sometimes we can get complacent with our running when everything is ticking along relatively fine. But all it takes is one disappointing run to remind us of how important it is to be mentally strong enough to handle the tough days out. If you have a run like I had last week, don’t fret. Instead, use it as good motivation to get your mental training back on track for the next occasion. No run is wasted if you learn lessons to take forward to your next run and beyond.

– Mary Jennings is founder and running coach with Mary's book Get Running published by Gill Books is out now. 

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