Building Confidence in Your Running

confidence in running
We interview performance psychologist David Harrison to find out how to build confidence in your running, and how self-belief helps performance. David has worked as a performance psychologist for over 12 years with elite athletes and teams, across a range of sports. He is a PhD researcher at Nottingham Trent University looking at psychological resilience in extreme endurance events, and runs a performance consultancy called Pinnacle Performance.


1. What role do confidence and self-belief play for runners?

Confidence and self-belief make a big difference to running and training. If you have the belief that you can do something, you are much more likely to achieve it.

When it comes to confidence, there are peaks and troughs. You can have good days and bad days. These relate to motivation too: at this time of year when it’s dark, wet and cold it is much harder to feel positive about going out for a run. But when you do force yourself to get outside in winter, you can often have your best runs because they build your self-belief. You feel good that you have overcome the obstacle of getting out of the door in the first place.

In turn, if you lay the groundwork for strong training when conditions are tough, the confidence boost you get from completing these makes you a more positive runner and helps you enjoy running in summer more.

2. How could we use self-belief to improve racing?

  • Positive thinking in races: Unless you’re an elite athlete, your best races are usually against yourself, not against other people. You are up against the elements or the course, but most importantly you are up against yourself. You need to develop your confidence and self-belief so you can overcome the voice telling you to stop when things get hard.
  • confidence in running
    Mindset and resilience:
    Through the tough training in the winter, build up the belief that you can do this. If you can run ten miles on your own in winter conditions, you are likely have a stronger mindset and more resilience in a race.
  • Dealing with discomfort: You can also extend your ability to ride out physical discomfort. If you become used to staying positive when you feel uncomfortable or when you’re working hard, you will be a stronger endurance runner.

3. How do goals help?

It is important to tie self-belief into working towards achieving a long term goal. Having a goal will help you to stay motivated and focused, and in turn you will build self-belief by sticking to your plan.

Without a goal, it is easier to back out as soon as things get hard. It is easier to cut the run down in distance or pace, or to skip a training session altogether. You are less likely to push into discomfort.

Having a race as a goal gives you motivation and driving force, and a reason to push yourself harder. It may be that you don’t want or need a goal, you are purely running for enjoyment, which is totally fine if you have the motivation to keep going. But the majority of people need a reason to stay on track, and a goal really helps with that.

4. What if your goal seems too hard or overwhelming – can that actually knock your confidence?

If a challenge seems too hard, you may need to alter how you perceive it. There are ways to shift your perception mentally to give yourself the belief and confidence that you can do it.

Take ultra-runners as an example. They have to learn to think differently about distances, and break the total distance down into stages. A 50 mile race might seem too much to get your head around on the start line, whereas five lots of 10 miles, with milestones at each 10 mile point, becomes more conceivable.

This approach helps you build the belief that you can do it. If you know you can do a certain distance, for example 22 miles in marathon training on your own, it helps you to believe you can go a bit further in your marathon race.

In the end it’s only about putting one foot in front of the other!

5. What strategies can help to build confidence?

Here are a few strategies:

a) Imagine the “confidence bank”

I like to think about it as each person having a confidence “bank”. Like a real life bank account. As you put positive experiences into your account you get more confidence “credit”. Good sessions build up confidence in your bank.

Confidence can go up and down, a bit like an account balance. The more credit you have, the less significant a bad session is in knocking your confidence.

b) Review your run, and reframe any negative feelings

confidence in running
Think about your run afterwards, maybe when you stretch or sit in the bath. Think about what was good and what you could improve.

When you do this, try to reframe negative thoughts. If instead of thinking of things that “went wrong” you think of them as “learning points”, you can start to draw a positive result from them instead of allowing them to dent your confidence. Those learning points are incredibly valuable to you, because you are now aware of something you can work on that will help you to become a better runner.

Different people will perceive things differently – what you perceive as a success may be different from what someone else perceives as a success. But every training session will give you learning points, regardless of what you feel went well or not well.

c) Try writing down your thoughts

Some people will write down post-run thoughts in a log or diary. This is a great way to gain confidence because you can look back at the progress you’ve made and what you’ve learned from it so far. You can include learning points in this too.

6. So can you train your brain to help your running?

Yes, your mind needs training as well as your body. During the period in which you are training for a race, you are preparing your mental readiness for the race as well as your physically readiness.

It’s important to put effort into mental training all the way through your training period. It isn’t something you bolt on at the end.

Positive mindset will also help with physical issues that arise during your training. If you get injured or something happens that means your training is not going as well as you’d hoped, you can use the confidence you’ve built up to help you get through it and remain positive.

7. How can runners use visualisation and self-talk?

Self-talk and visualisation are tools that help develop a positive mindset. You can talk yourself OUT of having a good race or training session even before you’re out of the door! It’s important to change this around and you sometimes need tools and techniques to help you do that.

Practising these techniques (such as visualisation and self-talk) helps you to get better at using them. The more effort you put in, the more you’ll get from it. If you have practiced using tools like these in training, they will come more easily in a race.

Everyone’s different in how they use these techniques to best effect. You can use visualisation to help you feel good running, imagining the end of the session or race and tying that into the emotion of feeling satisfaction at the end of the run as well as to the knowledge that you are improving over the longer-term.

8. Do you have some suggestions we can all put into practice in our training this week and in our next race?

  • Before your runs: Start your next run by reflecting on what you are doing well with your running. Draw on that thinking during the run to stay positive.
  • During your runs: Accept that there will be difficult patches during a training session, and draw on your self-belief in order to be positive about them.
  • After your runs: Reflect on positives and learning points, instead of focusing on the negatives or things that went wrong. You may find it helpful to write these ideas down so you can draw on them again in future. If you spot a problem, accept it is there and do something about it – this is an advantage to you because it will help you to become a better runner in the longer term.

David Harrison has worked as a performance psychologist for over 12 years for elite athletes and teams, including professional football, cricket, volleyball, basketball, tennis, athletics and triathlon. He is a PhD researcher at Nottingham Trent University and runs a performance consultancy called Pinnacle Performance. His book on performance psychology, The Journey: The Elements for Success, Winning and Increased Performance, is available from The Flying Runner bookshop.

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