When Training Slips, Watch the Self Talk

HEY YOU! No need to scold yourself, it’s better to be nice!

We all talk to ourselves; it’s human nature.  On both good days and bad, we coach ourselves along through life, celebrating victory, lamenting defeat and encouraging ourselves in-between.

At least, that’s the idea, but very often those of us with competitive natures can be found to scold ourselves, disrupting the rhythm of encouragement with phrases like “I did it again.” “What’s wrong with me?” and “I could never do what XYZ is doing.”  There are dozens of these phrases, but the unifying theme is that they bring us down, not up.

Sound familiar?  As runners and athletes, we sometimes get so focused on results that we get caught up with negative self-talk.  I know I do!  If you’re right there with me, don’t beat yourself up about it, just read on and I’ll share how I handle it.

So first I’ll tell you about me, which I think you’ll agree is a fairly isolated experience, and then I’ll put it in context.

It is the nature of my life that I can plan out a week of training and then one morning receive a text message that changes my plans entirely.  As a camera assistant, my job is the kind of job that disappears for days and days (or weeks and weeks), only to suddenly demand my attention by asking, “Are you available today?  Like…now?” then booking me for the remainder of the week with fifteen hour days and five hours of sleep each night between.  No notice, no plan, just hit the ground running.  Oh wait, there’s no time in that schedule for running!

Not to mention by the end of the day, during which I’ve been intermittently standing at attention and lifting heavy objects outside in the elements — including snow, cold, rain, wind, heat, driving sunlight — I’m physically wrecked.  When I’m in the swing of things it’s not so bad; my body is used to the abuse, and I can usually squeeze a run in during a long turnaround (the time between leaving one day and arriving the next) or run on my way to work.  But not this last week.  Nope, there was no time to run.  There was barely enough time to get home, warm up with a cup of tea and stretch out my tired legs, sleep for five or six hours, get up and go back to work.  I worked through Saturday and got home at 2:30 am on Sunday, which meant there was no way in hell I was running the 5k I had planned for Sunday morning at 8:30.  In one fell swoop, my running week was completely shot.

So like I said, we all know this is not a typical way to live, but we can all relate to this:  life happens, and sometimes it gets in the way of our training.  Whether it’s a sick kid, a snow day, meetings that have to happen, presentations that can’t wait or getting called into a three day gig that you need to take because work has been slow for the last few months, sh*t happens.  There goes your track work.  That eight miler you had planned for tonight is gone.  There will be no PR for you this weekend.  Blow your running buddy a kiss as you cancel your long run plans.

It’s easy for feelings of futility to start creeping in when this stuff happens.  I catch myself all the time wondering, “Why do I even bother when my life doesn’t allow for me to excel?”  Or last summer, when my track workouts were all slow because I had to run them at high noon during a crazy heat wave, I kept catching myself thinking, “I’m never going to be fast enough.  I’m always going to be the one trailing behind.”  And when I hear about my peers training for ultras and when I can’t run the relay with my teammates it’s hard not to wonder if there’s something wrong with me that I was born with this intense desire to have a running life and a life doing this crazy job that I love.

But is that fair?  Would I ever tell someone I work with not to start running?  Of course not!  If a friend was upset because she ran 20 miles in a week instead of the 35 she’d planned, would I scold her and tell her she’d never excel?  If her times were slow, would I tell her to eat my dust and run away?  No way!

Forgiveness for our setbacks is one of the most important gifts we can give ourselves as runners, but it’s also one of the most difficult parts of our training.  For me, it helps to remember that I run because I want to be a better person, not just a faster athlete, and the person I want to be loves herself and prioritizes her physical and mental well-being.  Unless you’re a professional runner with no responsibility other than your career, it’s important to acknowledge where running lies on your priority list, and to be able to tell yourself it’s okay when higher priorities come first.

This isn’t to say that I don’t advocate working hard to squeeze the miles in, and I certainly don’t advise anyone to skip important workouts when training to race.  But when a setback happens, remind yourself that they happen to all of us – we’re in this together!  Instead of saying “never” and “can’t,” take a deep breath and say “sometimes,” and “can.”  It’s not necessary to scold yourself, just realistically evaluate what the setback means for your training, and make a plan to move forward.  You can do it.  Just maybe not right this second.  Remember what Scarlett said, “Tomorrow is another day!”

As for me, tomorrow is today, and today I’m starting the week over with a long run to help me shake out a couple of tough, cold days of work, and looking forward to what this week will bring.  As a friend of mine back in New Orleans used to say often, “either things will go smoothly or you’ll have a good story.”

Do you catch yourself in the act of negative self-talk?  How do you handle it when you have a big setback in your training?

Cinnamon made Salty Running, takes lots of pictures and drinks lots of coffee. By day she's a camera assistant for films and tv in New York, and by night she's on a quest for zen in the 10k. Her writing is a mix of satirical humor, finding wholeness as an average runner, cheering for runners at all paces and more.

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  1. Oh man, this post is so spot on for me right now. I’ve been majorly dragging and feel like there is something wrong with me because I’m not excited for another ten miles on the ‘mill. I think we all have our own individual inner demons to deal with telling we aren’t okay or good enough, the flavor just looks different depending on where we are in our lives. We just have to figure out where the negativity is coming from and challenge it. And sometimes the best way to challenge it, in my experience, is to ignore it to death.

  2. @Jo Like I said, this is something most, if not all, of us have in common. No guilt necessary! Just learn how to recognize it so you can adjust.

    Maybe try using a mantra to help break the habit? I like the thought that I am my own best friend, because I know I’d never talk to a friend that way! Also the words “never” and “can’t” have become triggers for me that help me notice when I’m doing it. Often during a race, other runners will hear me muttering, “can too,” Or even just “can!”

    @Cilantro – I find when I ignore my negative self-talk is when it has the greatest effect over me. I’m more of a meet-it-head-on-and-shut-it-down kind of gal.

    You’re also in the throes of heavy race training! Keep your eyes on the prize and imagine yourself excelling at your race to help you through!