Feeling Like a Fraud: Imposter Syndrome and Running

imageYesterday, on my way out of the gym, I held the door for another woman who was also on her way out. “Thank you!” she said,  “And by the way, you run REALLY fast!” I didn’t know how to respond so I nervously laughed and said, “Oh! Thanks, but–” She interrupted, “I saw you run 7.5 on the treadmill and I think I would blackout if I ran that fast!” For whatever reason, I couldn’t muster a simple thank you and move on. Instead I launched into a complicated explanation about intervals, speed training, and the difference between those paces and easy pace.

On the drive home, I reflected on this interaction. What compelled me to feel like I had to explain myself to this woman? The truth is, I felt like if I had accepted her compliment about my speed, I’d be a fraud. A simple thank you would need a disclaimer: Thank you, but I can only do that sometimes. Usually I’m quite slow. The more I thought about it, the more I realized how often I do this in all areas of my life. Nice outfit? Thanks, but I bought it on clearance. Nice blog post? Thanks, but it felt really hard to write. It all ends up being a battle of the reality others see versus the impostor I view as myself.

I have a bad case of impostor syndrome and it’s holding me back as a runner. 

Impostor syndrome is the feeling of inadequacy or chronic self-doubt that persists despite the evidence of success. It’s worrying that others will some day realize it was all an act and you’re really not all that you appear to be. It’s feeling like your running accomplishments only happened because it was a good day, or no one else showed up, or because there was a full-moon three nights before.

Impostor syndrome prevents me from enjoying or relishing any growth or success I have as a runner. I take a moment to celebrate a PR in a race, but move immediately to picking apart my performance, reminding myself of the times I had to slow down, or of past training runs I skipped. I steal the glory away as quickly as I get it. It appears as I toe the starting line of a race. When I get there, I feel ready and able, but then I look around at the lean, elite runners at the front of the pack and that voice in my head whispers, You don’t belong here. It screams at me mid-race, Oooh, you’re breathing this hard at mile 4? You’ll certainly bonk by mile 8. This is going to be a terrible race for you. See I was right; you can’t run that goal time, afterall!

Right now, impostor syndrome is already trying to foil my upcoming marathon training. As I wrote out my schedule on the calendar it told me, You’ve never run 60 miles in a week- there’s no way you’ll survive week 15. How is it even possible that I am already prepared for failure that may or may not happen 15 weeks from now? Because I feel like a fraud simply by dreaming about my goals.

Am I hardwired to believe I can’t be who I dream of being? Is impostor syndrome in my DNA? As a Minnesota gal, I’ve always been told not to be boastful and not to pat myself on the back too much. Celebrate a little, but then get back to work! A gold star for you, but don’t go bragging to your friends about it! In some respects, this has made me a hard worker. When I do well, I try to do better. When I accomplish something, I seek something bigger. That’s great … until it isn’t.

Would an imposter subject herself to this?
Would an imposter subject herself to this?

When impostor syndrome won’t allow me to enjoy success, to savor the feeling of a job well-done, or to relish the hell out of nailing a really hard workout I’ve completed, it’s holding me back from success. When I celebrate an accomplishment, I can learn from it. I allow myself to reflect upon what I did to get myself there, and I allow myself to hear the voice that says, You are a success. You worked hard and it paid off. You are capable of reaching your goals. If I can allow that voice of confidence more time to speak and more room in my brain, I am also pushing that voice telling me I’m a fraud to the background and giving it a little less space.

So as I prepare myself for my upcoming marathon training, I am going to work hard to remind myself I’m not an impostor; I am the badass marathon training chick that lady in the gym noticed. Go me!

Do you suffer from impostor syndrome in running or in the rest of your life? 

I'm a college mental health counselor, runner, cyclist, wife, and mom to two strong-willed children. I started running in 2011 after the birth of my last child after years of love-hate relationships with fitness. My favorite distance is the half marathon, but I love the challenge of tackling the marathon. My biggest challenge is the mental aspect of racing, but my greatest strength is I'm stubborn and never give up! I'm a free spirit, an open book, and try to be authentic both in real life as well as in my internet life. Running has given me a place to face my fears, chase goals, and stay humble. Side note: I love cats and coffee and tacos.

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  1. I think everyone can relate to this in some way shape or form. Let me start with, you are NOT an imposter and you CAN and WILL kick ass during marathon training and then the race. Will there be things you can learn along the way, absolutely but like you said that isn’t a bad thing!

    I catch people (and myself) frequently using “but” after talking about something they did. I just ran X:Xx marathon which is huge BUT I really feel like I could have done more. I just had a workout that went really well BUT it was on the treadmill so it doesn’t count as much. Another one is “only” I only ran a 5k this weekend, people ran marathons. I only ran 45 miles this week but so and so ran 70. But and only are words I think we just try and use far less- because it enables imposter syndrome!

  2. This is so real. Is it a women thing? Can we not appreciate our efforts and our successes? Why do we sabotage ourselves? Be proud. You’re strong. A mantra for most of us, I imagine.Thank you.

  3. It’s totally a socialization thing. Our culture tells women that apropriate behavior is to be quiet, meet, not boastful, pleasing. I’ve seen it all over. Including in my niece…who’s 5 by the way. Grrr

    This is a great article and I’m reposting to a feminist group I’m in. Because you’re not an imposter!!

    1. *appropriate *meek.

      See, now I’m even apologizing for my spellcheck’s insinuations about what I’m typing. Sigh.

  4. Great writing T!! And I do think our DNA is part of this. “Cocky” was the worst thing we could be growing up. I battle this not only with running but my writing.

  5. This is such a great post! I definitely suffer from exactly the same thing and feel the need to add “but…” to everything. Thanks for writing this and reminding us all to be proud! You are a badass marathon chick and people are giving you the credit you deserve 🙂

  6. Great post, Pumpkin! I can definitely relate to this, because in order to run fast for 20 percent of my miles, and keep improving, I have to run slower than many casual runners do for the other 80 percent of my miles. Makes me feel like a bit of a fraud when someone notices one of my rare fast efforts.

  7. Interesting post! Thanks Pumpkin! While on the outside I definitely react in a similar way to people who say things like “Oh wow, you were running so fast!”, I don’t think it’s because of imposter syndrome, but rather just the humility that comes from having been crushed by how hard running/racing can be for everyone (be she couch to 5k’er or elite) and from knowing so many people who are so much faster than I am.

    I think I react with explanations instead of thanks and confidence because I want that person to know that it’s not out of reach for them too. That running, more than other sports I think, bonds people together in a common experience regardless of how fast they are. We are all humbled by this sport. No one “wins” and has no further room for improvement. We’re not racing against other people we’re racing against ourselves and our time and the course and conditions.

    I definitely do experience imposter syndrome in other parts of my life, where I feel doubtful of my own abilities and sometimes alienated from any success I experience, but in running I just have a heavy dose of humility! : )

    1. I’d have to agree here. Growing up, I would diminish my accomplishments because my sister or best friend at the time would get the whole, why can’t you be like Jinger guilt trip. It made me highly uncomfortable. Sometimes I would even act out just to make it less awkward. Yet at the same time, I likely behaved to a T because I am a people pleaser and got positive attention that way.

      Nonetheless, at the gym a few weeks ago I noticed an older woman (prob in her 60s, a bit overweight) on the TM. She was holding on to the front and every few minutes she would start to jog real fast but at her same walking pace. She was so focused. I told her nice job, doing really well! Her response was awesome, anti-impostor: Thanks! I used to not be able to go this fast and now I made a lot of progress. We then both went on to continue our runs. Ah, wisdom.

  8. I seriously have been making a conscious effort to just say “thank you” to compliments for this very reason. I don’t need to give my explanation or “but-” to a person’s compliment, because I don;t want to hear that when I compliment someone, either. You are definitely not an impostor runner, you are totally Bad-ass.

  9. Great post, I’ve been looking forward to it!
    I’ve also noticed that we (ok, I) sometimes judge women more harshly for simply stating their accomplishments, like posting a workout or race time, etc. So maybe that’s why we feel the need to downplay.

  10. The flip side is that imposter syndrome might actually be a sign of how much you aren’t an imposter!


    I’m sure there’s a gender related component to this, but I also think it’s worth remembering that most of us are just trying to figure out how to make it in this complicated world, and that a lot of us – even the ones who seem like they have their shit together the most – are really like “I have no idea what I’m doing.” Just keep putting your head down and trying to do your best, and you’ll be awesome, no matter what the outcome is!

  11. When people tell me I’m fast I also say, but….
    It’s beginning to dawn on me that when someone says I’m fast and I go into the usual routine, I’m really insulting them.
    They think I’m fast because I’m faster than they are. To say “I’m not really that fast,” demeans their hard work and sacrifice to get as fast as they are.
    We all work hard to get faster than we were before. Some of us just get faster than other people, for a variety of reasons.
    On top of demeaning their efforts, I’m not accepting their compliment. How rude!
    Just as I’m trying to become faster, I’m also trying to become more gracious.

  12. Great post, Pumpkin! I definitely feel like this about my planning and lessons as a teacher as well as in my running. I think it’s especially difficult for super motivated, goal-oriented people like runners to not feel satisfied, particularly when we feel like we could have gone just a little bit faster/little bit farther after a workout. Inspired by this, I think I’ll take the challenge of just saying “Thanks” the next time I’m complimented on anything (even if it’s not running related) from now until my next marathon is over.

  13. I admit it…I do this. I’m always at the back of the pack…not necessarily the last but not first for sure. I’m running my 6th half this weekend and I promise you when I walk into pick up my packet tomorrow, I’ll feel like I totally don’t belong there…I’m still working up the courage to put my 13.1 sticker on my car that I earned 5 years ago. Thank you for this article.

  14. I am so guilty of this! Even if I achieve my “A” goal, I’ll look at other women’s times and immediately feel like I suck. Or, I’ll look back on my training and do the “what-ifs.” Heck, at 35 years old, I look back on my entire life and do that — what if I had joined the track team instead of ridden horses, what if I had raced marathons earlier, etc etc. The fact is, there is no going back and we can only work to get better from where we are — and where we are is awesome! We just need to realize that!

  15. I think I might have the opposite of this. I don’t have s physique which people associate with running. So when I tell them how far I run or that I’m training for a marathon, the look on their faces is often one of disbelief (usually non-runners btw, runners seem more accepting). In someways it’s good as I like disproving their assumptions and biases.