Advice to My Teenaged Runner Self: Fixed vs. Growth Mindset

cross-country-960330Pick any classic New England fall Saturday between 1988 and 1997: cold, crisp air, blazing foliage, the smell of woodsmoke, and a mass of nervous teenage girls in polyester singlets that never lose their funk, standing twitchily behind a chalk line on a muddy field.

I stand with the few other girls on my cross-country team, hopping from foot to foot and trying to ignore the dread roiling my stomach. There were so many thoughts in my mind at any given time that it’s hard to distill them down, but they were usually something like:

Ugh. Does my hair look stupid? Running makes my hair look stupid. Also it’s so annoying to be so slow and I hate it that I always start out too fast and my hair is so stupid.

I could already feel the way my legs would turn to lead and my mood would tank by 10 minutes in. Sure enough, I’d start with a seven-something first mile before slowly disintegrating into a jogging, self-pitying mess, crossing the chalk line again in 24-whatever and never getting any faster.

Despite a lack of any apparent talent, and my aversion to races*, I always loved to run: cross country and track in middle and high school, more cross country in college. Of course, as Ginger has explored, you can’t know how “talented” you are until you actually try. Looking back I realize I never found out whether I could have run faster, limited by my belief that you either could run fast or you couldn’t. The speedy girls running 18 minute 5k’s in high school? I had no clue that they were as angsty as I was about running, that they worked hard for their wins and, in some cases, suffered hard with eating disorders, anxiety, and depression. Stunningly oblivious for a person with so many A’s on her report card, I figured they were just lucky to be fast while I missed out on the speed genes.

Fixed Mindset vs. Growth Mindset

The nature versus nurture debate has been a hot topic since Carol Dweck published her 2012 book, Mindset. Yep, in high school I was stuck in what Dweck calls the “fixed mindset.” A fixed mindset is the belief that talent and ability are set traits. Consequently, you see your achievements as a reflection of your innate talent and believe this talent should be enough to guarantee success. You don’t value hard work, so if you fail at something, you believe it’s because you’re not any good at it. In contrast, people with what Dweck calls the “growth mindset” believe they can get better at anything, even get more intelligent, by trying, failing, learning, and trying again.

Never one to dwell in grey areas when all-or-nothing is an option, I was a die-hard fixed mindsetter for most of my life and all it got me was …

Not even a lousy t-shirt.

It wasn’t only my non-growth-mindset that kept me mired in running mediocrity. I was clueless about training, hammering to keep up with faster people on easy runs and then wondering why I never got any better at racing. As an introvert, I was not a fan of people yelling at me to run faster (or, let’s be honest, of people in general). I liked running in the woods with my friends, and disliked track meets.

The good news is that a fixed mindset, like other non-life-enhancing traits, isn’t fixed forever. You can change.

My Moment of Clarity

My single flash of running intelligence came my senior year in high school at some all-New-England track meet. I was strangely calm lining up for the 800 next to another senior who had always won everything at every meet ever, and had gotten an athletic scholarship to a big university. Something in my head clicked as we stood there, and right before the gun went off I thought, yeah, I’m gonna run with her.

The gun went off and I sprinted to stay at Fast Girl’s shoulder, the yells and screams from my teammates and coach a faraway roar as I … just ran. No thinking. No feeling. Just running. Ultimately, she pulled away with another girl in the last 200m as I drowned in lactate, but I came in third, won a medal, and got a 10-second PR, the taste of blood at the back of my throat confirming I couldn’t have run harder if I’d tried.

Sadly, it took me about 15 years to take anything away from the experience.

OK, My Real Moment of Clarity

In 2008, spurred by the gruesomeness that is a failed relationship in a foreign country, I started running more “seriously” again. I aimed for an hour a day, signed up for races, researched training plans. And what do you know? I dropped minutes off my PR at each race. I ran my first half marathon in May 2008 in just under two hours. In October 2008 I ran one in 1:41. My first 10k that year was 54 minutes, the last was under 46. Whoa! All these years I thought of myself as static and unchanging and it turns out that if you actually train for things, you can get faster! Mind. Blown.

The funny thing about that 1:41-ish half marathon is that when I stood with the crowd on the starting line, waiting for the gun, I wasn’t nervous. I stood there staring at the lake we were about to run around, dazed from stress and lack of sleep, and I suddenly thought yeah, I’m gonna run 1:40. No what?! That’s a seven-minute PR! We were going for 1:45! I simply made the decision. And then I went and did it.

Is it always like that? No. There’s no button to switch on that sense of calm knowing, and I’m not sure where it comes from, though I have some ideas. Before that 1994 800m race I’d been feeling uncharacteristically good about my running, doing the suggested long, easy runs on Sundays and noticing that it felt good to run fast. I enjoyed the process of training more than I ever had, loving the freedom that came with running away from campus after class, and I wasn’t terribly invested in the outcome of the championship race.

Same in 2008: I was motivated by the reward of constant PR’s, but most of all I enjoyed the process and the alternative view of myself it offered. I arrived at the half marathon thinking 1:45 was probably in the bag, but I did not believe anything was resting on whether I did it.

Sometimes all it takes is a little change in perspective to change ourselves as runners.

The slow-dawning realization that I was in control of my running performance showed me what else I could control in my life: anxiety, negative self-talk, and a bunch of other self-sabotaging stuff that made me not enjoy life or relationships for way too long. I’m still, often, anxious and think way too much. I can hardly claim to be some serene ideal of a mom or wife. But running has become a way for me to practice and slowly adopt a growth mindset.

For instance, I refuse to ruin a perfectly good run by: perseverating; telling myself my slowness is some reflection of my character; hinging my self-worth on a pace; or otherwise not enjoying the process. The experience of taking control of my thoughts and turning my feelings around on a run has spilled over into my daily life, where I’m able to be more open, caring, relaxed – oh, and post long, potentially embarrassing, self-revealing essays for public consumption on Salty Running!

How about you? Are you stuck in a fixed mindset or are you a growth mindset convert like me?

I'm a 43-year-old living in Berlin, Germany and currently training for the 2020 Berlin Marathon.

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  1. I saw a lot myself while reading this, I have had a very similar experience throughout my life not just in my athletic/running experiences. It wasn’t until recently that I realized that I am in control of my life and that only I could change my mindset and my outcomes. The battle of anxiety and overthinking comes with the territory of being an introvert, and I think this lends itself to the fixed mindset. It takes a grand ah-ha moment of clarity and a conscious decision to change the way you think to see the positive changes in your mindset. Thank you for this post!

    1. Good for you!!yeah, I’ve definitely had, well, a few moments of just being f’ing sick of being like that. And then a few other moments where I realized I could actually do something about it. Running has been a major way for me to practice being how I want to be.