Rerun: Affirmations for Runners

This post originally ran on March 5, 2012.


Photo by jessebezz

We’ll get to affirmations, but before we get there let’s talk about something I’ll call the Mental Bermuda Triangle: the point in some races where our confident bad@$$ self disappears and a weak blob of wussitude remains in our place. It’s the point in most races where we are most vulnerable to our mental weaknesses. It’s usually somewhere in the third quarter of the race: far enough in that we’re hurting, but far enough from the finish that we start doubting whether we can make it.

Maybe you’ve had a race experience like this. The gun goes off and so do you. You’re on pace and feeling good through the halfway point and then all of a sudden you don’t feel so well. Maybe your legs are hurting or you feel nauseous or just start worrying that you won’t be able to finish. Maybe you start contemplating dropping out. You might start berating yourself for slowing down or being a wuss. You might bargain with yourself, “if we can slow down a little this mile I swear I’ll pick it up the last mile.” When you lose yourself in the Mental Bermuda Triangle (MBT) in a race you end up slowing down and finishing disappointed.

We can leave it to chance whether we will have a great day and not get sucked down by the MBT. Or we can strengthen our minds through training to hopefully avoid it all together. Of course we’re going to pick the latter option! So what can we do to train our minds to be stronger to weather the MBT?

Why affirmations, of course! When someone first mentioned that affirmations might improve my racing I thought they were insane. I associated affirmations with this:

Stuart Smalley
Stuart Smalley. Image via Wikipedia

CHEESY. I thought affirmations were just these trite pats on the back. “Oh, you are just sooooo perfect and wonderful, self!” I could not picture myself telling my self how great I was all the time. It sounded silly and pointless and a big waste of time. Oh, but how wrong I was.

Affirmations need not be cheesy pats on the back. They can be any positive statement about yourself that you repeat until you believe it. Basically affirmations are a tool to fake it until you make it: if you say something enough times eventually you will become a believer, it’s as simple as that.ย While you can use something general like, “I’m so awesome!” as an affirmation, affirmations are most effective if you tailor them to buffer yourself against your particular mental weaknesses.

Here’s a brief example of how affirmations work. Say, a runner (definitely not me or anything!) tends to fear going to the well and really experiencing pain at the end of the race.

An example affirmation would be:

“I am not afraid to go to the well. Pain is fleeting. Achievement is forever.”

NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 22:  Actress Debra Messi...
(Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)

A runner who fears the pain that comes with gutting out a breakthrough performance gets caught up in the yucky feelings of the moment and loses sight of the big picture. This affirmation tells the runner that the MBT is temporary and reminds her of her goal.

This runner might write her affirmation on a post-it and stick it to her bathroom mirror. She’d repeat the affirmation to herself every time she saw the post-it note. She’d also practice it in workouts. For instance, she might practice repeating the affirmation through the last half of her tempos or through the last few intervals of her track workout. This runner who before affirmations would become scared to push herself when the going got tough in a race, would be much more likely to ignore the MBT and push through the pain to the finish line after practicing her affirmations for several months.

Do you use affirmations? Do you write notes to yourself? Tell us what works for you!

Salty Running boss and mother of 3 little ones with PRs of 3:10:15 (26.2), 1:25:59 (13.1) and 18:15 (5k). I love to write about running culture, mental training, and fitting in a serious running habit with the rest of a busy life.

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  1. I haven’t used them, but I like the idea. I have certainly been at that place in the race that you describe and it is REALLY hard to recover from that. So I will test it out and let you know how it goes! BTW, this reminds me of one of my favorite race signs: “Pain is temporary, Internet race results are forever.” ๐Ÿ™‚

    One thing I do that is in somewhat of a similar vein: during training when a workout is particularly hard (or even several in a row are really hard) and I start inevitably thinking about cutting it short, I remind myself that I cannot take shortcuts in training because if I allow myself to, it will be too easy to give up during the race. So I talk myself into pushing through, hitting my paces, and nailing every mile or minute on my schedule despite how crappy I feel. If you start allowing yourself to cut corners during training, you’ll be more likely to give in to the MBT come race day. Of course there are times cutting it short is the right call, but don’t get into bad habits or it will haunt you on race day.

  2. Dude, I so need to start using affirmations or mantras or something. When I get to mile 10 of a half marathon, I inevitably swear that I am not going to sign up for another half, or possibly even another race, ever. I then spiral downward and it’s all a mess. I have a half this weekend, my first trail half. I am more worried about that mile 10 ditch of misery than I am about any other aspect of the race. Its all I can do to force myself to go through with the race. I haven’t signed up for anything else this fall for lots of reasons, one of which is the ditch of misery. Blech! Maybe Stuart Smalley can help me.

  3. Affirmations are great, but I’m a firm believer that that they have to be formed correctly. Our brains, while they can be molded, must be molded correctly. I have read many times that affirmations, in order to be most effective, must be personal, positive, and stated in the “now”. For example, instead of saying…

    “I am not afraid to go to the well. Pain is fleeting. Achievement is forever.”, one would say “I enjoy the feelings associated with a hard race effort.” or “I like the pain, because it is the pathway to great achievement”.

    If the affirmation has a negative (like the word “not”), or an “I’ll try”, it should probably be reworded. I picked this up from the Psychology of Achievement, by Brian Tracey years ago, and it tends to work well for me.

    1. Great point, Michael! It’s definitely best to command yourself to do something in the present and not make it wishy-washy at all. You’ll be able to out-psyche the affirmation if you give yourself any opportunity. Maybe instead of I’m not afraid to go to the well, say I love going to the well. “I’m not afraid to xx” works for me, but I can see where it it’s not direct enough for most!