How Running Helped Me Overcome Imposter Syndrome

I have been an educator in the public school system for 11 years: eight years as a classroom English teacher and three years as an instructional coach. The eight years I was in the classroom, I struggled to think of myself as a good teacher despite receiving commendations from colleagues about my classroom management and relationships with kids, as well as receiving a county Teacher of the Year Award.

When I decided to become an instructional coach, I did so because I felt burnt out and needed a break from the classroom, not because I thought I had value to contribute to my colleagues. After three years, I continue to feel like I don’t know what I’m doing, but have been told multiple times what an asset I am for my school.

I don’t share these stories to brag, rather I share this to tell you my experiences with imposter syndrome … and how running helped me change that mindset.

Four years into my teaching career I decided to become a runner. I jumped right into training for a marathon, then steadily chipped away at my PR, bringing it down from a 5:09 to 3:29. Over the years, I watched myself progress with every goal I set for myself. Sometimes progress was quick, especially in the first few years, but often it slowed or plateaued.

Despite the times of slower improvement or plateaus, when people tell me I’m a great runner, I don’t doubt them the way I do with my career. For some reason, it has been easy for me to recognize that running is something I’m good at, and something I can always improve. Running provides me with a tangible lesson on how to persevere and push myself despite my insecurities.

After taking up running, my experiences with anxiety at work slowly began to change. I started to volunteer for leadership positions. I’ve been responsible for staff trainings, leading staff meetings and initiating coaching conversations. For the most part, I’ve found success. I still have to push myself to speak up, and when I find myself with nothing to contribute, I fear it is because I lack the intelligence to know what to say. But, more often than I used to, I find the courage to speak. Part of this is due to maturity and experience, but most of it is due to running.

Whether it’s the endorphins talking after a satisfying run or the calm mental clarity found through the running process, we’ve all heard of running’s healing effects. For me, running provides me with a confidence boost that reminds me that I can be good at something. And maybe if I can be good at one thing, I can be good at something else, too.

I once taught a lesson to my students using an article published in Fortune Magazine many years ago titled “What it Takes to Be Great.” The main idea is that it takes about 10,000 hours of deliberate hard work to be great at something. People whom we often consider to be the greatest in their careers (the article uses examples like Tiger Woods, Winston Churchill and Warren Buffet) have all put in hours upon hours of work to become as great as they are.

The message is obvious: practice makes perfect, but that’s not all. The practice must be intentional and deliberate, meaning we must make specific goals, observe the results, and make appropriate adjustments in order to improve.

In running, we often set goals beyond “just run”. We want to get faster or go farther, so we set incremental goals, we pay attention to how our bodies react to different workouts, and we make minor adjustments to our training plans. And slowly we get there. As runners, we know that this is what it takes to be great.

So, why do I find this more difficult in my career? Perhaps because it is not physical, change is less obvious. Running is one of the very few endeavors in my life that I did not give up on once it got hard. It is the only experience I have where I have seen a direct relationship between effort, practice and success.

Measuring progress as an educator is a little more nuanced. In teaching, especially at the middle school, success is relative. You think you’ve made progress one day, only to take two steps back the next. Test scores are through the roof and one student tells you you’re the best teacher she’s ever had, only to have another student rant on Twitter about how much they hate you (true story).

But seeing forward progress in running, seeing that with effort comes reward, has helped me continue to strive for progress in my career as well. It has allowed me to accept who I am but to also push myself to speak up more often and take on leadership positions, despite feelings of inadequacy.

Has running helped you find success in other areas of your life?

A teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area who loves trail running, backpacking and cycling. Having grown up in the Sierra Nevada foothills, I secretly aspire to run Western States 100 someday. Realizing it might not be as crazy as it sounds (maybe it is), I am currently training for my next ultra.

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3 comments

  1. Ahhh, yes!! I taught for 8 years, and I have to say that profession in particular made me crave the immediate gratification of seeing hard work pay off. With teaching, I’d complain about how many hours I’d pour in to my curriculum development and grading, only to see the kids toss the notebooks that I spent 20 minutes grading on each until midnight the night before and giving thoughtful feedback on, straight into the garbage without even reading my comments. Sigh. People would say, “Oh, but SOME DAY, they’ll come back and thank you for being the inspiration for ____!” Yeah, well in the mean time I’ll pour some hard work into my training and watch my times drop.

  2. Great post! Running has definitely helped me in other areas. I still have imposter syndrome though :/

  3. This is fantastic! One thing it reminded me of is that running is a tool to remember our power. Sometimes in the rest of life I feel powerless and running is a thing I can control that makes me feel like I’m strong and can handle shit 🙂