Understanding and Overcoming Self-doubt

A group of runners jumps in the air together

Everyone experiences self-doubt. When new to the sport, some of us may even hesitate to call ourselves runners. Despite the typically welcoming nature of running communities, they can appear exclusive and intimidating from the outside. What’s more, once we are “in,” our expectations can degrade confidence whether we’re a beginner or an elite. What makes it so difficult to overcome self-doubt and feel like we belong to a running tribe, and how do we overcome it once and for all?

Common ways we doubt ourselves:

Do I look like a runner?

While there is no “right” running body type, it’s easy to get caught up in body comparison with other runners in our communities and in the pages of magazines. Lauren Ross, a trail runner and registered dietitian of Houston, TX, says that after years of nutrition counseling, she is pretty confident that “almost everyone has times when they feel uncomfortable with their bodies.” She sees that most people put unnecessary emphasis on what their body looks like, rather than their health and performance.

Even top athletes experience this sometimes. Take elite endurance athlete Rob Krar of Flagstaff, AZ, for example. He’s happy with his body now, but acknowledges he struggled in the past. Krar says he doesn’t naturally have a “bronze statue type body and never will,” and that he likely spent too much time working on “vanity muscles” in his younger days, attempting to build what he thought was the perfect runner's body.

Amy Cole is yet another example. She’s a marathon runner for the Sonoran Distance Project in Tucson, AZ. Despite being a strong competitor, she says she's often felt like she doesn’t have a typical runner's body, and has felt intimidated by women who she perceives to look the way a runner "should" look.

Am I fast enough?

It’s common to join a running group, or stand on a starting line and wonder if you can keep up. Fear of being the last to finish, needing to walk, getting too sweaty or appearing weak to others top the list of common anxieties.

Andie Cozzarelli an elite marathoner from Raleigh, NC, acknowledges the intimidation factor that comes with lining up with world-class athletes. Cozzarelli says, “When I am not where I want to be fitness-wise, it feels like I don't deserve the spot on the starting line.”

Similarly, Cole admits that she has struggled with imposter syndrome, and doubted her own accomplishments, especially when lining up with well-known top competitors.

Am I doing this right?

Ever looked around on a starting line and felt unsure about the gear to use, what to eat or the best way to warm up? If so, you are not alone. Nobody wants to stand out as someone who doesn’t know what to do. Cole, who was a competitive swimmer before she started running, remembers standing around at races early in her career, feeling awkward. “I had no clue what a racing flat was,” she says, “or what kinds of drills I should do before races.”

When Katie Richards, a multi-sport adventure athlete from Boone, NC, trained for her first half marathon, she felt frustrated dealing with the expectations of others. Since she was already a strong climber and swimmer, well-meaning friends dismissed the difficulty of taking on a new sport. They told her that she should be able to do something “as easy as running” without really training. She says they had all sorts of opinions about the “best” way to run, which wasn’t all that helpful for her as a newbie. And that intimidated her more.

How to overcome the self-doubt

Confront negative thoughts head on.

Rather than denying your doubts, take a good hard look at what is going through your mind. Cozzarelli suggests reminding yourself to “be where you are, and focus on the controllables.” She says that acknowledging how you feel and allowing yourself to be vulnerable is essential to overcoming negative thoughts.

Cole, who is a licensed psychologist, says that for her, “accepting and working with negative thought patterns is key.” It’s natural to compare yourself to others, and Cole works on using it as motivation to improve her abilities. She uses feelings of jealousy as a “barometer” for helping her understand what she wants in life.

Adapt a growth mindset

Cole also suggests using a growth mindset when working toward any challenging goal. This idea, developed by renowned psychologist Carol Dweck, suggests that abilities are not stagnant, and can be developed through hard work and dedication. People with a growth mindset see challenges as opportunities to develop skills or strength, rather than as tests to reveal fixed abilities. After a disappointing race, a runner with this mindset sees the potential to adapt training and continue to work toward improvement, rather than deciding she is simply “not good at running.” This attitude is far more likely to set her up for success.

Acknowledge your strengths.

Richards finds it helpful to thank her body every day for what it lets her do, and takes pride in the things she does best. She says, “I feel awesome when I’m consistently the only person on the trail in rain, snow and below zero temps. I may be slow, but I’m not a wimp.” Cole likes to remind herself of the hard work she has put into her training, if she is having doubts or struggling with imposter syndrome. She finds confidence in the fact that “the clock doesn’t lie.” She knows that her race and workout results are real and make her stronger.

Focus on accomplishment rather than appearance.

Smart training, eating well, adequate sleep, and strength training are all things that will set you up for success. Lauren Ross says “Taking the focus off what my body looks like and shifting it to what my body is able to accomplish is key.Ross adds that she hates comments on how her body looks. “I'm not here for you to look at,” she says. “I'm here to see how far I can push my limits, to bring joy to others, to help people reach their goals. What I look like doesn't impact my ability to do those things.”

Stephanie Violett, an ultrarunner, coach and nutritionist, from Bend, OR, credits much of her healthy body image to her environment growing up. She says that in her home, diets were never discussed and her mom never talked about negative body image. “We also ate dinner as a family every day, and I think that was huge. I had a really healthy relationship with food.”

Surround yourself with positive people.

While we can’t always control our environments, it helps to find friends and loved ones who will listen when you tell them how you want to be supported. This may mean telling friends that you don’t want to discuss weight, or other subjects that trigger negative thoughts. When taking on a new challenge, Richards suggests finding a few faithful “zero-judgment” friends to work with. She also likes to find inspiration via social media in others who set a positive example. Richards sites Mirna Valerio and Hilary M. Oliver as people who challenge themselves without regard for what others think or expect of them.

Deserae Clarke, an ultrarunner from Phoenix, AZ, found support in the trail running community and obstacle course racing, which she said focuses more on being strong than being thin. She also appreciates support from her family and friends who “remind me that I'm a badass no matter what size I am.”

Wherever you are, be patient and commit to moving forward.

The kicker here is that moving forward might feel like moving backward. As we age, most of us struggle through seasons of slowing down and failure to match our past performances. While trying to run at a higher level, or overcome an injury, many of us force our bodies to do things they may not be ready for, which can cause more harm than good. Cozzarelli suggests that “running takes patience, and patience takes confidence.” Setbacks, time and maturity help us grow as individuals and eventually help us build strength and confidence.

[This article was updated on August 6, 2020]

By Kate Schwartz. Schwartz has been running competitively for 20 years, and she currently runs with the Asheville Running Collective. She lives in Asheville, NC, with her husband, Alex, and their cat, Clementine.