Who Are You? The Importance of Self-Image to Running Success

Shorts + listening to Pesto on the Diz Runs podcast!

Picture yourself running. What are you wearing? Where are you in relation to others? Are you happy? Are you struggling? Are you who you want to be?

Recently, I started training with my elite development team again. ย Because I’m just returning to fitness, I’m struggling to keep up with my teammates. Then the other day, I noticed I’ve labeled myself: the old slow one. When I picture myself in workouts, I picture myself struggling and behind my teammates. And wow, that is not helpful as I aim to get fit and take my running to the next level! If I see myself as the old slow one, then how am I going to run? Not well! Will I ever meet my goals? No!

I’m sure I’m not alone in struggling to define myself in a way that will lead to success. It’s time to discover how we define ourselves, and to redefine ourselves in ways that will be more productive to achieving our big goals!

It’s been almost ten years since I finished the bar exam and became a runner. After three years of sitting on my butt studying it was time to get outside and move! In those ten years, my runner self-image has changed a lot. At first, I was embarrassed about how out of shape I was. I could only run one minute interspersed with two minute walk breaks. ย I wore my cotton clothes and hid on a rarely used bridle path perfecting my new routine. As I started running more and more, I started to feel more confident. I brought my routine out of the shadows and onto more populated paths and the treadmills at work. I still didn’t think I was a “real” runner, but then about six or seven months in, my body started to change: I lost about ten to fifteen pounds all of a sudden and I started to look like a real runner (at least in my mind). I still felt like the lady hiding on the bridle path, but I dressed like a runner and I acted like one. I remember going to my graduate law class with a power bar and declaring to the guy sitting next to me that I had to get my run in after class (poser alert!).

I might have been a poser (I was), but eventually I became what I pretended to be – I became the serious runner person I longed to be (the FIUYMI principle). I’m not sure why I allowed myself to fake it until I made it then, but I did. And it worked. I pictured what I wanted for myself and I got it.

Since then, like many of you, I’ve struggled with this. Sometimes at my group workouts I think of myself as “the slow one.” Or even more productive, “the old one.” Or sometimes both! The Old Slow One! And how have I been running? Like an old slow one. Think that’s a coincidence?

In your life, you are the author and you decide who you will be in the story. Somehow though, we often don’t realize how we’re writing ourselves. Let’s look at ways to discover who we are in our stories:


One way to see how you’re defining yourself is to take a look at your insecurities and fears. I’m afraid I’m getting too old to continue improving. I’m insecure that I’m too slow to keep up with my teammates. When I was in high school, I was frustrated that I wasn’t as fast as my freshman friend who walked on the team and kicked my butt. My narrative then became that I’m not talented. (I failed to note that while she certainly was talented, her dad coached her for a year before joining the team and while she was on the team I was inconsistently bumbling around, but that is beside the point).

Self Talk

When the going gets tough in a workout what do you say to yourself? You know what I say! But I also wonder what’s “wrong with me” that’s keeping me from running faster and usually I answer that as “old and slow.”

What Do You Look Like in Your Head?

Picture yourself. What do you look like? I picture myself as a frumpy mom, pushing the double stroller and running slow. When I see images of elite runners, I do not identify with them. I identify with my fellow-frumps. See, I just called myself a frump!

So, in my narrative, I’m an old, slow frumpy mom runner. That image doesn’t exactly lend itself to athletic greatness, now does it?

What can you and I do to improve the story?

Challenge the Belief

Am I old? I’m 39. so what? And I’m definitely not old in terms of training years. Am I slow? Slower than I’d like to be, but that is temporary AND relative. Am I frumpy, well, that’s another matter. Anyone want to nominate me for a makeover show?

Improve the Self Talk

Self talk, especially during those hard moments in training, cannot improve without some serious effort. It must be practiced. What the experts say to do is to figure out positive self talk that motivates you when you’re not running and to practice it during training. This is not something that can be done on the fly.

For me, instead of chastising myself for being slow when a workout is going well, I am focusing on positive things about me. I’m definitely tenacious and I’m always trying to improve. I try to view each workout individually and what I can learn from it and this helps me focus on those positive characteristics and keeps me engaged in what I’m doing even when the splits aren’t perfect.

Improve the Pictures

A more productive image.

This is where we can get more creative! I try to actually picture my muscular self, lean and mean lining up at a track race in buns and a hard core attitude. There’s no reason that can’t be me. To help this, I’ve enlisted my photoshopping sister to make an actual picture for me. You can do the same with a printer and some scissors. Cut out your head and tape it on the body of a runner you want to be like. This is not about body image, necessarily, but it’s about picturing you in the context you hope to be in some day.

So how about you? How do you picture your runner self? Who would you like to become?

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. Great post. I fall into labeling myself as “old”, tooโ€ฆ.but then I guess that’s what age grading exists for! By the way, the FIUYMI post you refer to is one of my all-time favorite Salty Running posts – and I’ve had it in my mind many times when I’ve felt insecure about my abilities as a runner (and other things too!).

    1. Thanks! Yeah, I had the idea for the post and then when I was writing it I felt like I was rewriting the fiuymi post, but I think it’s good to see the same issue from a couple of different angles ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. I’m a little stuck on the poser language. Maybe you didn’t mean it the way it sounds, but it seems a little elitist to me (e.g. you are not a real runner unless you are faster/stronger). IMHO, if you run, you are a runner. Period. That said, I am guilty of telling myself I am an old, slow runner lately too. I was just thinking the other day about how I used to jump in races all the time and run all-out even if I was undertrained or overtrained. Now I question it too much and hold back because I am convinced I’m slow, etc. I need to work on turning that around.

    1. I think a lot of people feel uncomfortable to fake it until they make it because they feel like posers. What I’m saying is that when we fiuwmi we are actually posers and that’s ok. I did not say anything about what constitutes a runner or anything like that. I’m talking in terms of who we believe we are today versus posing as who we want to be. In my example, I was a newbie not even training for anything or knowing much at all as some hardcore veteran runner person who I did not feel like I was, so I was indeed posing and I’m cool with that ๐Ÿ™‚ it’s a subjective posing (I felt like I was posing) rather than an objective posing (other people judging me). Does that make sense?

  3. I’m trying something new this summer with running. Instead of telling myself, “I’m a cool weather runner. I don’t do well in heat”, I’m thinking, “I can acclimate and adapt. I know what I need to do. I can run in the heat.” Not that much of a change in what I’m actually doing (though I am training for longer hot summer races than I have before), but a BIG change in how I think about my performance when it’s hot out. Maybe it’s just that it hasn’t gotten really hot out yet, but I think it’s helping.

    Self talk has helped me in other places too. I’m good at running downhills, relative to most runners at my pace. Every race, as I pass people going downhill, I remind myself of that. (And I remind myself again when they pass me going back uphill!)

    1. I do that all the time! My default is usually pessimism, so I am constantly catching myself being negative about situations and having to reframe more positively. It really does work, but it takes A LOT of practice!

    2. I’ve definitively been doing that a lot lately too. It’s hot and I’m not good in heat and it slows me down and I feel weighed down, but I’ve been trying to flip it around and imagine how much faster I will be once it’s fall and cool again.

      1. Ugh, I am with you! I just tried to do a pretty challenging fartlek workout at 11 a.m in 86 degree heat. It was not exactly a confidence booster ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. OK, i thought about this all day yesterday! Here’s my beliefs I need to challenge —
    “not talented, need to work harder than others to run the same times” –> This is a great time for me to experiment with lower mileage & (EEK!) skipping runs occasionally.
    “not a marathoner” –> uhhh, clearly NOT compatible with my goals!
    “tempo pace is X:XX” –> going to use this time on the postpartum improvement curve to make sure I don’t let myself get stuck in a rut here.

    Great food for thought, thanks for the post!