Self-Compassion and Running

Last winter I trained hard, perhaps harder than I’ve ever trained before, for my key race: the Fargo Marathon. Eighteen weeks of dedication, tears, joy, and fatigue carried me to race day. I had lofty race goals, but I felt strong and ready. As I’ve talked about before, I fell far short of my goals, and instead of clocking a personal best that day, I ended up with a personal worst.

I found myself in the Depths of Despair after that race, and my own negative self-talk kept me locked there and had a larger impact on my running and self-confidence than I care to admit. If you’ve ever had a really terrible race or bombed a workout, I’m sure you’ve found yourself there too.

With time, however, I gained perspective, and I realize now what I needed then was a whole lot more self-compassion.

Immediately following the race, I fought back tears of defeat as I walked through the medal line, and I let the tears flow as I tried to choke down a slice of pizza that would have been warm had it not taken me approximately six days to finish the marathon. I played hostess to the largest pity party attended by just one person in human history. I passed by friends as I tried to sulk away to my car and they hugged me and congratulated me and told me how incredible I was for gutting out that marathon and finishing even though it was hotter than Hades. The kudos were many, and my friends threw all of their love and support my way.

But I couldn’t hear them. Or, more accurately, I wouldn’t hear them. I was preoccupied with the tape recorder of negative thoughts playing on repeat in my brain. I shut myself into the dark corners of my mind and wallowed in disappointment, which I felt was the appropriate punishment for so fantastically imploding during my race.

As competitive runners, it’s likely you’ve had similar experiences following a busted workout or difficult race. Emotions become so deeply tied to the goals we set for ourselves, and it’s easy to tie our worth to our ability to execute and achieve those goals. The post race narrative can quickly turn into a series of “should haves,” “shouldn’t haves,” and “what-ifs” before we even have time to shower, much less let the adrenaline and emotions cool. It’s hard to employ balanced judgment on our performance when our thoughts are driven by emotions.

The problem with this is that it can become all too easy to let that post race narrative become about our own personal failures, rather than about any number of other factors that could have happened to get in the way of achieving the goal. It becomes about what screwed up, and what is wrong with me as a runner?

We beat ourselves up as a means of motivation to try harder and do better. For some, this self-punishment may prove to be helpful, but for many of us, the punishing voice in our heads does little more than chip away at our confidence, our self-worth, and rather than helping us to push harder, it might have the opposite effect. When we always feel we are no good and falling short, we begin to hate the sport, doubt ourselves, and maybe even pull away from running altogether.

The words we tell ourselves hold a lot of power, so if we are to become better runners, and really, just better versions of ourselves, we need to change that internal dialogue from something negative and punishing, into something much more forgiving and understanding. In my profession as a mental health counselor, we refer to this as self-compassion.

Most easily described, self-compassion is the concept of treating ourselves the way we would treat a good friend. After a particularly difficult race, would you tell your best friend that she “should have tried harder?” or ask, “What is WRONG with you?” Of course not! You might give her a hug, remind her of all of the hard work she put in and that one race cannot take away all that she earned during her training cycle.

Talk yourself up instead of down!

In those moments of pain and frustration, self-compassion suggests we do the same for ourselves. We can be our own worst critics, but never take the time to really think about how damaging that can be to our self-worth over time. The more we engage with the negative dialogue, the more automatic and ingrained those thoughts become. How are we expected to thrive when we carry around our own worst enemy?

Self-compassion reminds us that we are all human, and therefore are imperfect. We are all connected to one another by this humanness, and can find healing and encouragement when we allow ourselves to accept and talk about these imperfections. Talk to other runners, ask them about the struggles they have had with running, and I guarantee you that you’ll feel less alone when you allow yourself to connect and relate to others.

This has deep ties to mindfulness, where we seek to find acceptance in our thoughts and in our situations, without judgment. Rather than saying “Stop feeling bad for yourself” after a challenging run, try and allow yourself to experience those feelings without judgment. Let yourself recognize that you’re feeling bad, and rather than push it away, provide yourself with some compassion and understanding in that moment.

***

It is perhaps inevitable to someday have a race or workout that deals a blow to your self-confidence and knocks you down. Rather than getting stuck in a cycle of negative internal dialogue, remember to be kind to yourself. We are all human and if we allow ourselves to experience emotions as they arise, we can really learn to relate to ourselves on a more compassionate level.

What helps you be kinder to yourself after a difficult race or workout?

I have read and recommended the book Self-Compassion to a number of people, because it has truly helped me to shift the way I think and how I treat myself. These concepts have utility that extend far beyond just running. A great resource if you are wanting to explore this more in-depth is www.selfcompassion.org.

I'm a college mental health counselor, runner, cyclist, wife, and mom to two strong-willed children. I started running in 2011 after the birth of my last child after years of love-hate relationships with fitness. My favorite distance is the half marathon, but I love the challenge of tackling the marathon. My biggest challenge is the mental aspect of racing, but my greatest strength is I'm stubborn and never give up! I'm a free spirit, an open book, and try to be authentic both in real life as well as in my internet life. Running has given me a place to face my fears, chase goals, and stay humble. Side note: I love cats and coffee and tacos.

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4 comments

  1. I do exactly as you say- treat myself the way I’d treat a friend. I learned it from a much younger grad student, and I’m so grateful to her for it. Beautiful article, Pumpkin!

  2. “How are we expected to thrive when we carry around our own worst enemy?” So true and beautifully said. I have to remind myself of this so often.

    And yes, feel all the feelings. It is the only way to go.

  3. Amen, sister! <3 Lately life has been throwing so many different things my way, and the only thing I can do is be patient and forgiving with myself. Not every day is a fully productive day, and that's okay. Same with running!

  4. A few months ago I had a bad race, and I was so down on myself about it. It was a 10K, and one mile of it was slower than my goal marathon pace (race was in October, marathon in January). I shutter to think about how I talked to myself after that race because those were things I would never say to a friend or training partner, or anyone, unless I wanted to get beat up in a back alley somewhere. Two weeks after that race, I got a season ending knee injury and ate those words.

    I’m back to running and racing now (no marathon), and have learned to be my own best friend in races. You can’t control much on race day… you can’t control the weather or who shows up. You can only control so much in your training. But you can control how you talk to yourself on the course… be positive!