Basic Mental Training: Don’t Judge!

Are you your own biggest critic? Image from

Early in my running career, I can remember getting incredibly nervous about speedwork. And I distinctly remember trying to discern whether I was afraid it would hurt, afraid of fatigue or afraid I wouldn’t be able to do it. The truth? I was afraid of all three! Did it really take me nearly 15 years to figure that out? Yes!  I never truly tried to get to the bottom of it and just let it fall by the wayside. So 15 years later when I committed to “go big or go home” in my fall marathon, I knew I had to work on my mental game.

One of the first things I needed to do was to quit judging myself as a runner every time I hit a little bump along my way. Tempo feeling harder than it should? “I suck!” Completely missed the mark on that last interval? ” I suck!” Quit my long run two miles before I was supposed to finish? … you get the idea.



I started my quest to quit judging myself by reading the book Running Within. If you haven’t read it, it’s the runner’s mental training bible. Get it! As I’ve mentioned in previous posts I don’t handle mid-race surprises terribly well, so I had to prepare to encounter and defeat running-related adversity. Running Within taught me that when negative thoughts of “I’m tired” and “what if I can’t” crept in, I had to offer my brain alternative, happy thoughts, or at the very least neutral thoughts to block the negativity.

But first, I had to accept that fatigue and doubt were inevitable. In racing, we push our bodies to their limits, wavering between feeling invincible (runner’s high) to feeling as though the pace is unsustainable. During the tough times doubt creeps in. And when that happens … well that’s when I (used to) get all judgy-wudgy about myself as a runner and then it’s all downhill from there. My breakthrough in mental toughness/training really came when I stopped judging my own performance mid-workout or mid-race.

Don’t judge me!

Through years of running, I had developed a learned response to fatigue: slow down. But fatigue does not need to lead to easing up on the effort. When the fatigue or adversity hits, the key for me is to acknowledge it but not judge it. It is so tempting to say “I’m tired, soooo…” or “I’m not hitting my pace, sooo…” So nothing!  Do not interpret. Do not judge. Yes, I’m tired. That is a fact. Yes, I may be running slower than I would like and have no idea why. That is a fact. But by avoiding interpretation after the “so,”  I’m able to prevent reacting emotionally to the physical sensation ofr fatigue and push through it.

I can remember the workout when I truly adapted this philosophy: I had 12 x 400 at 75 seconds on my list and I couldn’t get under 80 seconds. Each repetition went by 82, 81, 83, 80. Instead of shouting to myself “why can’t you get under 80!” (perhaps with a few additional descriptors), I just kept plugging away, hoping the next quarter would be on pace. I don’t remember whether I ran a single rep at 75 seconds, but I do know that keeping the mantra in my mind I kept pushing as hard as I could and this workout changed my perspective on pushing through adversity.

I’m not hitting my goal times…run run run….Don’t judge it! Keep trying!

Gone are the days of cutting a workout short for no other reason than because I’m not hitting the pace. Afterall, 12 x 400 at 80 seconds is better than 4x 400 at 80 seconds and a judgy-wudgy cool down home. Right?

Image from

Over the last few months this “Don’t judge” mantra has been helping me get through more than just tough workouts too. In fact, it’s taken on a whole new meaning for me during the past few months. See, I’m in an identity crisis of sorts in my running life, unsure where I am headed or even where I want to go. I have spent quite a few weeks beating myself up mentally for not wanting to set a goal and train in my usual goal-oriented matter. I’m finding that I “just” want to enjoy running for the sake of running! And I am finding it really hard not to judge myself for feeling that way.

But just as my sturdy mantra “don’t judge” has pulled me through many precarious miles, I’m confident that if I can avoid judging myself for not feeling the fire right now. I’ll get through it just the same.

Do you judge yourself when things don’t go well in training or races? Any other tips for carrying on when things don’t go as planned?

I'm a pediatric physical therapist by day. Running mostly early am miles as I balance life as the mom of a toddler. With PR days in the past, my primary running goal is to be a lifelong runner. With 20+ years behind me, I still love the sport and I am truly grateful for every day I get to run.

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  1. Great post! I’m going to have to check out that book. I, too, am finding that judging voice creeping in on the harder days. I like the idea of pushing through even you are not hitting pace. I’ve also found that thinking about the bigger picture helps. Also imagining myself as a vehicle. I’m the driver finding different gears. If my gas (energy) is low, I’ve got to work something out mid-race or workout. Oh and I loved your idea from a few weeks ago- picture yourself as someone else when running. I always imagine I’m as fast as Paula or Shalane, haha. Good luck with your current training and hoping you find what’s best for you soon!

  2. I had one of my best long runs of my life on Sunday because instead of judging myself, instead of spending 2 hours pissed off at not making pace, I just smiled and cheered myself on for what I could do. When I felt myself slow, I encouraged myself rather than my usual inner temper tantrum and a day later, I am still proud of myself because slow or not, I stayed out there and I got myself through what could have been a long, ugly, angry run and chose to have a better happier one!

    1. That’s awesome, Sarah! It takes a little work, but we can be more positive mentally. It might be hard at first, but if you keep “faking it until you make it” eventually that positivity and lack of judgment when things go awry will be second nature and you’ll be a mental beast, capable of handling anything!

    2. Congrats, Sarah! It is so liberating to take the pressure and judgement away. It reminds me why I love running in the first place. Keep us posted on your training!

  3. Studies have confirmed that our mind forces us to slow down or ease up before our body really needs to as a defense mechanism. Thus, the more we can do to train (or, maybe trick) our mind to let us push on, the better our results will be. We will all hear that voice in every race we run, telling us we don’t have it – even the elites hear it. The biggest difference (besides their killer VO2max, lacate threshold, running economy, yadda yadda yadda) is the experience they have in ignoring or countering that voice.