Becoming a Rational Runner

03/31/2017 - 11:22

By Richard Ferguson
Many runners think too much. They analyze, ponder and try to make sense out of the world around them. If anything they tend to over-think. In fact almost all humans tend to over-think. Our minds make us human, but at the same time our consciousness can get in the way of allowing ourselves to physically perform like we’re capable of. In other words, we may actually think ourselves into running below our real capability. Too often we cognitively distort things and think in very irrational ways. It’s this irrational thinking that may limit our performance, as well as limit our enjoyment of running. Let’s look at some common irrational thinking patterns often seen in runners.

Do you ever over-generalize, or base a conclusion on a single event or a single race? If you have a bad run on a particular course do you then think you can never run well on that course? Do you ever say you never run well in the rain? Such thinking simply involves jumping to unwarranted conclusions based on a single event. The best way to cope with over generalizations is to really look at the evidence. I’ll bet you really can’t say you’ve NEVER run well in the rain or you have NEVER run well on a particular course. Just think about how irrational it is to use the word NEVER! Don’t blow a single event out of proportion.

Do you ever look at your running in absolute terms: it’s good or bad, successful or unsuccessful? There just seems to be no room for any middle ground. Either you feel great about a race or you’re extremely disappointed in your performance. This type of “all or none” thinking is dangerous because the world we live in is just not one way or another. To overcome thinking in absolute terms try not to categorize things. Sure, it’s simple to think in terms of good-bad, black-white, all or none, but most things in life are not at the ends of the extremes. Most things are on a continuum between the extremes. So try not to look at your running in terms of being bad or good. Remind yourself to give your best effort. If you do so then you really have had a “good” run! Enjoy your effort in a training run or race and be joyous that you gave your best effort!

Do you ever catastrophize running? Catastrophizing involves thinking in the “worst case scenario” mode. It’s when you always expect a disaster in your running. Things like, “I just know I’m going to struggle on that hilly course” or “if I don’t run a personal best I’m going to quit running.” Castastrophizing also means you begin to think in terms of “what if’s.” “What if I don’t win?” “What if I hit the wall?” Such thinking only serves to increase anxiety and worry. Remember that running is not a life and death matter. Sure, you want to run well, but that’s just not going to happen all the time. A good way to deal with catastrophizing is to remind yourself that you’re well prepared and that you will give your best effort. When you prepare well and give 100% then good things can happen, which is the “best case scenario” you’re really looking for.

Do you ever get too personal about your running? Do you think that everything people say to you is somehow related to how you run? If you see a group of people laughing after a race do you think they’re laughing at you? Do you ever feel people are disappointed in you because you didn’t run well? When you get right down to it, if you personalize things you’re trying to maximize your own importance and your own feelings of personal power. I doubt that many of us are so famous or noteworthy that other people observe us and base their feelings on how fast we run. Remember to keep things in perspective and your true friends don’t care how fast you run because they like you for who you are as a whole person!

Do you ever blame others for what happens in your running? Blaming is often a way of trying to make an excuse when you fail to reach your expectations and feel disappointed. Do you ever blame a coach for not preparing you well enough? Do your friends and family ever get the old “you don’t support me” line? Well, if you blame others, then what you’re really saying is that you are not in charge of your running. Remember that it’s you who makes the environment you live and run in. Be honest with yourself when you feel like placing blame. Think about what YOU did to produce the result! Sure, we all have bad breaks from time to time, but be careful of placing blame. Your running friendships may suffer.

Do you ever feel running is just not “fair?” Do you feel because you’ve trained in a certain manner you are “entitled” to good race performance? In reality, there is no “fair.” When most people use the word “fair” what they’re really doing are telling you what their own personal wants and expectations are. The way you want things to be is what you consider fair, but we don’t live in a fair world. No, it’s not great when you train months for a marathon, yet are forced to drop out at 20 miles. You may think it’s not fair, but just think about people with debilitating diseases who would love to be able to just walk down the street. Again, work to keep your running in perspective.

We all have different views on the world, which make us the individuals we are. Each of us has assumptions about why the world is the way it is and why people behave as they do. These views and assumptions have developed over time from the way we were raised as a child, our relationships and our personal experiences. Try to be aware of your thinking patterns and areas of irrational, non-levelheaded thinking that you may commonly use. All too often it is irrational thinking that leads us to feel nervous, anxious and full of worry. By counteracting irrational thoughts you will feel more positive about your running and you’ll probably enjoy running even more. So keep a “level running head!”

Richard Ferguson is Chair of the Physical Education, Wellness and Sport Science Department of Averett University and is an AASP Certified SportPsychology Consultant. He can be reached via email at