Stop Being a Perfectionist About Your Running

When I first became a professional runner, I thought the hardest part would be the physical training. . . I had no idea running would be so mental, no idea that the most important aspect of success would come down to how I thought.--Deena Kastor (Let Your Mind Run)

You just heard the split on your watch. It’s faster than what you expected, and so you’re feeling on top of the world. Right? Next up, a Boston qualifying time and maybe a picture showing you grinning next to Shalane in the elite corral. Finally good enough!

You just heard the split on your watch. It’s slower than what you expected. Ugh, not again. Why are you stuck at a twelve-minute mile? SO discouraging. You should probably give up on making a PR this year . . . again. You’re never going to be good enough.

How do you talk to yourself on your runs? In your training? On race day?

I have an admission - I am a recovering perfectionist about running, and lots of other things too. I used to be at the mercy of my watch. After running with a club for a couple of years, I became super focused on time and pace, to the point where I was never satisfied unless I could run with the fastest of my pace group. And then once I did that, I moved up a pace group.

I thought I was training well and being competitive by buying into the idea that faster is better. But that belief and the group dynamics just made my perfectionism and tendency to watch-watch worse. I felt like a failure when I had a bad day, when I was off the pace I thought was “good enough” for reasons out of my control.

I see this in the runners I work with, too. Last summer, runner after runner would call me, anxious, because their times were off. “You’re in the middle of a heat wave,” I told client after client, “Everyone’s time is off by at least a minute. You’re doing awesome.”

Still, the runners I worked with worried. Though I wanted to laugh and say, chill out, I understood why a slower pace would freak my clients the f*ck out. It used to freak me out, too. And though I can say over and over again that pace shouldn’t be a barometer of our success or worth as runners, it’s still the way a lot of us think. It seems to be a default setting for many runners.

And because of that, many of us have become perfectionists about our running. Or we have established a habit of thinking that way which traps us in a cycle where pace is the measure of success. Either we succeed and do well, or we fail and beat ourselves up.

But why do we do this? Why would anyone do this?

Perfectionism, as explained in this terrific article from Thrive Global, isn’t about perfect running. At a fundamental level, it’s about perfecting us as a person. We believe we’re imperfect. We believe that we’re not good enough as we are, so we are always striving to be perfect in order to fit in. We’re always striving, striving, striving. We think we need to improve ourselves in order to fit in, to avoid rejection, to have a place at the table, to be invited to breakfast with all the other runners after a group run.

Does this sound like you yet? I’ll be truthful - it sounds like me a few years ago for sure. Maybe even a few weeks ago, to be 100% honest.

But I changed my perspective and you can too.

Ditch the Watch

For one run - just one run, people! - don’t track your pace while you’re running. Pick a day when you have an easy or recovery run on the schedule. Go out with the idea that you’re going to run comfortably - at a 5 or 6 out of 10 in terms of effort.

Ideally, you’ll run a route that you know the distance of so you can just track the mileage with no pace needed. But if you really want to know afterward what your pace is, fine. Turn off all notifications on your phone, tuck it in a belt or on your arm, and don’t check it until you get home.

Observe Your Thoughts

How do you talk to yourself? When I read Deena Kastor’s Let Your Mind Run, a sentence on page 4 made me catch my breath:

“I’d always considered myself a happy, mostly cheerful person, but when I started paying attention to my thoughts, I was surprised to find there was a lot of negativity in my head.”

I started watching my words both in my internal narrative and what I said out loud. When I realized I was complaining all the time, I decided that wasn’t me and I wanted to stop. And I did. Every time a complaint came up, I thought: what am I really feeling right now, in this very moment? A lot of times, I was feeling worried about how I would look to other people or whether I was capable. What I realized, very quickly, was that my inner critic way underestimated my strength and ability, and therefore I was too.

What’s the Purpose of Perfect?

One weekend, I went out on my long run without headphones or any idea what my pace was. (I did track the run, on Strava, but I turned off all notifications and put my phone in my Spibelt.) Throughout the run, I tried to figure out why I had become so critical of my own running.

Yes, my “fast is better” attitude was influenced and encouraged by my former run club, but I’m responsible for my own beliefs. Yes, I have a habit of overachieving and striving to better myself constantly. And yes, I deal with insecurity and have a history of not fitting in and being bullied, so it makes sense that I would be focused on being accepted by a group.

But I was also buying into a story I had created for myself: that I wasn’t good enough to fit in as I was.

I realized that the purpose of my perfectionism wasn’t about my pace or ability. I was doing eight miles, on a Sunday, hungover. If I had been a client, I would have said that being out there was an accomplishment in itself.

I had to acknowledge that a very old story - a remnant from my time being bullied - was cropping up. I had to say, Thanks self, for trying to protect me, but I’ve got this. I realized I was the only one who cared about my runs being perfect, and that striving for perfection was what cost me success. I couldn’t make mistakes, I couldn’t run an easy run at an easy pace, and I couldn’t open up my mind to really see what was missing - a positive attitude. In her book, Deena Kastor also realizes that her mind went to negativity or focused on the struggle in her runs. Realizing that, for her and for me and now for you, was a gift because we can change what story we believe in.

Remember Why You Started

On that same run, I started to change my thinking. I used a technique I learned from Let Your Mind Run where I replaced a negative reaction with a positive one. That guy cut me off on a scooter? Maybe he didn’t see me. This mile feel a bit harder? Well, it’s mile six of eight, hungover, so that’s natural. Let’s see if speeding up just for a few seconds makes this easy pace feel easier. Oh yep, that did the trick. That driver totally didn’t see me and almost hit me, but I’m grateful that I didn’t get run over by a car today….

You get where I’m going with this, but mindset is SUCH a huge piece of performance. That’s why Deena wrote a whole book about it, and why I want to focus on it more. I started doing this practice of shifting my thoughts from negative to positive in every run, and guess what? My splits are down, and runs are still comfortable.

I want to know: what do you struggle with in terms of mindset?

Are you a perfectionist? A pace hawk?

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