Running Free

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Running Free

Written by Richard Ferguson, Ph.D. on 04 February 2013.

Think back to those wonderful runs in the past when you have felt effortless, totally energized, relaxed and just totally focused on running. You just seemed to float along losing all track of time and yourself. You were not worried in the least and you really didn’t have any expectations for the run, you just went out, ran, and enjoyed it. Now think back to runs when things didn’t go so well. Were you anxious? Were you worried about not having a good race? Did you have some expectation for performance, either self imposed or placed upon you by others?

            Many runners feel much happier and get more enjoyment from their training than they get from their racing. Both are running, so what makes them all that different? If you don’t enjoy your racing, or your training, is there any way to change your perception so that you feel satisfaction from all your runs? Can you actually perform better in races if you enjoy the experience more? You will probably enjoy all aspects of running much more if you free your mind and, as a result, you will probably perform better as well.

            In many cases runners “get in their own way” when it comes to getting the most out of the entire running experience. Sure, if you feel bad physically or are not in good condition due to a previous injury, any run can be less than nirvana. Everyone has “those

days”. On the other hand, are there psychological factors that can lead to less than enjoyable runs, both in training and competition? The way you think can indeed have a huge impact on how to interpret your running experiences both in training and in racing.

            In races you may put a lot of pressure on yourself to perform. In other words, you have expectations and you may feel that if your expectations are not met, you failed. This type of thinking can often lead to self-doubt, anxiety and worry. When you doubt yourself and you worry about anything you feel bad mentally and it’s probably difficult to have much fun in the activity you are worried about.

            Right along with worry spoiling a good run, negative self-talk can make any run seem like work. All of us use self-talk on constant basis each and every day. How you talk to yourself during your run can have a huge impact on how you feel, both mentally and physically. If you constantly say things to yourself like, “I don’t want be out here”, “I know I’m going to have a bad race” or “I just can’t make it up this hill without walking”, then it almost serves as a form of pre-programming for these feelings and events to actually happen. Work on recognizing your negative self-talk and replacing negative self- statements with positive ones like, “Let’s enjoy this run since it’s a beautiful day”, “Hang tough, it’s going to be a fast race today” or “Steep hill, pace yourself, drive your arms”. You really do behave and feel the way you think.

            Putting undue pressure on you can also ruin any training run or race. All too often I encounter runners who exhibit high degrees of perfectionism. They are seeking the “perfect” run or race and anything less is viewed as not being worthy or as a failure. This type of irrational thinking can set you up for a lot of disappointment and frustration. Humans are not perfect and since you are indeed human, perfect runs and races will not occur that often. If you think perfect performances will always occur, your confidence will surely suffer and you may begin actually fear running. Sure, strive for perfection but don’t demand it, because surely you will be often disappointed. Is having a bad run or race really a catastrophe that you can’t bounce back from?

            Perfectionism can also lead to all-or-none thinking. You run either good or bad and nothing in between. This too is irrational and can destroying confidence and enjoyment of running. In reality most of your runs are actually average, with a few being poor and a few being really good. It’s the rule of the normal curve! Work on enjoying and appreciating all the average runs, because they are in fact good runs!

            By learning to focus in the present you can also be less mentally encumbered during your runs. When you are mulling over negative things that occurred earlier, whether they be months in the past or that day, you will be creating a lot of negative emotions. Rehashing negative past events during any run or race can bring you down emotionally, disrupt concentration and ultimately spoil an otherwise great run. Worrying about things in future can have the very same negative effect on a run. If you are thinking about some stressful event you need to get done latter in the day or week you certainly won’t be able to focus on your run and enjoy it to it’s fullest.  When running work to clear your mind and get into the actual run itself. Enjoy the feeling of exertion, the environment you are running in, or positive interactions with your running partners. Focus in the present and you almost certainly will feel better both physically and mentally.

            Feeling confident can also make any run or race more enjoyable. You run frequently, so why not be confident? You have the ability to run well and most certainly have demonstrated it in the past. Telling yourself you aren’t a good runner or thinking you can’t make a certain distance only serves to decrease enjoyment. Confidence is your choice, so choose to be confident. I’ll bet that when you feel good about yourself you enjoy your runs more.

            So on your next training run or in your next race remind yourself to be free and have a little fun! Shouldn’t running be a fun activity? Don’t let your thinking turn any run into drudgery or torture. In other words, don’t let your thinking get in your own way. Be your own biggest fan and mentally treat yourself like you would treat your best friend. Trust yourself and trust your ability and training. Don’t just go out for a run, go out and run free!


Richard Ferguson Ph.D. is the Chair of the Physical Education Department at Averett University in Danville, VA and is a Certified Consultant by the Association of Applied Sport Psychology.  This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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