Are Your Own Beliefs Holding Back Your Training?

A man runs down a country road

How Confirmation Bias Affects Your Training

Let’s do a little experiment to start this article. All you have to do is read the following two paragraphs:

A.) The U.S. economy is soaring. Growth is up 4.1 percent over the last quarter, its highest rate since 2014. Tariffs have brought back manufacturing; the results are huge. In fact, this rate of growth should be sustainable for years on end. Based on these numbers, America has clearly jumpstarted its economy in line with the promises made by President Trump.

B.) The cost of living is skyrocketing across much of the country. With inflation rising and wages holding steady, major increases in real estate prices, medical services and food costs have wiped out the spoils of those economic gains for most middle- and working-class Americans. A one-bedroom apartment in New York City now costs almost $1700/month. It appears that the only people gaining from the U.S. economic boon are the ones who already had the most.

Which of the above statements rings true with you? Odds are if you are a dyed-in-the-wool Republican, your sentiments will fall in line with paragraph A. If you supported Bernie Sanders a few years ago, you’re more likely to endorse paragraph B.

How did you decide which statement seemed true? You probably looked for one that conformed most to beliefs and views you already have. This is known as confirmation bias, and it plays a huge role in how we interpret the world and its events. Put simply, confirmation bias is a form of wishful thinking. Instead of objectively viewing situations or data, we selectively grasp onto bits of information that confirm our opinions and prejudices. In fact, studies have shown if I had simply changed the years and the name of the president from “Trump” to “Obama,” I could have almost entirely flipped who picked each paragraph as true.

If confirmation bias only affected political views, it would have no place in a running blog. Alas, anything we have an emotional connection to is subject to this type of motivated reasoning. And so, it includes training.


Past Experience as Faulty Guide

John Berry (a pseudonym) was fast. A 4:11 miler, Berry was a collegiate distance coach by the time he turned 30. Working with the 5K, 10K and steeplechase athletes, he thrived. He also coached several NCAA-qualifying throwers, notably in the discus and javelin. But with the milers and half-milers, he struggled. Mightily. Many flat-lined in their progress; some actually got slower. If training was brought up, Berry would pull out his old college logs and show them the rate of success he had. Why, he asked, could they not do things the same way?

It may seem obvious in retrospect, but Berry struggled the most with the events he knew the best. Having not run the 5K on the track or thrown the javelin, he studied those events from an objective viewpoint. Things that worked were kept; those that didn’t were discarded. There was no personal investment in the methods. But in training middle-distance runners, Berry let his emotions and memory influence his coaching style. What had worked for him should work for similar athletes. Except when it didn’t.

We often find ourselves the victim of our own histories and beliefs when creating our own training or selecting a coach to work with. A runner who came up in the 1970s is more likely to believe in the benefits of long, slow distance running and high volume. A runner from the 1990s may sing the praises of endless intense intervals and lower mileage. Done properly, both systems can produce great runners over many distances. Yet we are likely to discard one system as inherently wrong if we grew up in the other, even if elements of that training could be of benefit.

Finding Our Own Biases

It’s funny to think that we have an emotional investment in how we train, but see if you have a visceral response to any of these statements:

  • Long runs don’t need to be done weekly
  • Tempo runs are overrated
  • You can be a strength runner without hills
  • Static stretching is good
  • You can get faster at the 5K without ever running an interval
  • You should eat mostly carbs to run your fastest
  • Genetic talent is more important than hard work in achieving your goals

Examining the biases we have opens us up to new possibilities. Instead of always hitting the track every Thursday, why not try a hill workout? What if instead of always doing long, slow distance runs on the weekend, you occasionally made them progression runs that got faster every mile? Ever tried alternating pace workouts? What about eight-second all-out hill sprints?

Eliminating bias also means taking a hard look at the things that have become common place in your training routine and ascertaining whether or not they’re truly beneficial. If you always perform tempo runs at the same pace and intensity (meaning there’s no noticeable uptick in fitness), then maybe you need to reassess whether those workouts (and all the other training you’re doing around them) are doing their job.

This is the hardest part of challenging our own biases because it leaves us vulnerable. We’ve grown accustomed to believing that certain training elements must be present and done in a precise manner in order to work. But if they don’t work for you as an individual, why keep them? The Hanson brothers in Rochester, MI, have coached recreational runners to thousands of marathon PRs while not prescribing a single long run over 16 miles in their training. This runs counter to current wisdom … and yet it works. Last I checked, the Hansons also coached Desiree Linden to a 2018 Boston Marathon title.


By Philip Latter. Latter is a former senior writer at Running Times and co-author of Running Flow and Faster Road Racing. His work has also appeared in Runner's World, runnersworld.com, and ESPN.com. He currently coaches athletes at The Running Syndicate, in addition to his day job coaching high school runners at Brevard High School (NC).


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