How To Defeat Negative Self-Talk

WalkingAwayRunning and racing long distances can be as much a mental challenge as a physical one. Here’s how to effectively manage these counterproductive thoughts.

At critical junctures of a tough workout or race, many runners experience negative self-defeating thoughts.  They begin to doubt themselves, telling themselves that the endeavour is too difficult. They compare themselves to other runners who look fitter or are running faster.  They begin to question if they will achieve their goal.  Their self-confidence becomes eroded.  Effectively managing these counterproductive thoughts is as critical to your success in running as is proper physical preparation.

In our coaching experience, we’ve witnessed runners that consistently race well are those whose mental game is in order.  Conversely, runners that continually fall short of reaching their racing goals usually haven’t yet developed an effective strategy to defeat negative self-talk.

While Resting

Practice experiencing completing your goal.  Go beyond visualization and involve as many senses as possible.  Noted exercise physiologist and researcher, Dr. Owen Anderson coined the acronym VAK Training, verbalizing your goal and then experiencing the attainment of your goal Visually, in an Auditory fashion and Kinesthetically (feeling your goal).

Begin a VAK Training session by relaxing and then stating your goal e.g. “I will run a 2:00 half-marathon, I will qualify for Boston” (substitute your goal).  Now, involve the three senses:

  1. Visually – imagine how you will look as you approach the finish line, taking powerful strides, arms pumping in perfect unison with your legs, a broad smile on your face, see your goal time minus 30 seconds on the overhead clock, see the cheering crowds as you cross the finish line, your arms raised triumphantly!
  2. Auditory – hear your rhythmic breathing as you approach the finish line.  Hear the crowd clapping and cheering, hear the announcer calling your name.  As you cross the finish line, hear the congratulations of family and friends, all your supporters shouting “You did it”!
  3. Kinesthetically (feeling) –  imagine the feeling of pure joy as you approach the finish line, your body completely alive as you summon and engage all your physical and mental resources for your final surge.  You cross the finish line and feel the finish line volunteer putting the medal around your neck and warm embrace of your family, friends and supporters.  Your spirit soars as you feel the exhilaration and bliss of achieving your objective.

Rehearse your visualization several times each week, so that you’ll be able to recall it easily during your race.


During Difficult Workouts

Many runners become anxious or flustered during a demanding run when they begin to fatigue and experience discomfort.  This is fertile ground for the weeds of self-doubt to grow.

If you usually train in a group, you may not be used to running long stretches solo as often happens in longer races. With no training partners for company and conversation, you will be left with only your own thoughts during the race.  Recently a runner who is training for her first marathon as part of a group told me that she was caught off guard by the negative self-talk that she experienced during a solo 30K (18 mile) run.  Doing at least solo one long run will simulate race day, giving you the opportunity to practice handling these mental potholes.

Practicing the following strategies during long runs or difficult workouts will help you control your mental outlook:

Focus on breathing for several minutes, progressively relaxing your muscles from head to toe.  You’ll feel better if you relax and give yourself positive messages, rather than thinking of defeatist outcomes.

Listen to your inner voice.  It is connected to your core energy.  It wants what is best for you.  While recognizing negative thoughts, your commanding inner voice does not let them monopolize your inner conversation. Your inner voice runs the meeting.  It says to negative thoughts: “Thank you.  Would anyone else like to talk?” Once given controlled expression, your doubts are banished to the sidelines. Let positive images and messages rule your inner air waves.

Think of someone you know who has completed a similar workout.  Repeat to yourself: “If she can do it, I can do it too!”  This simple temporary mantra will shift your focus away from your negative internal doubts and towards positive physical action.

If you are being coached and are following a training program specifically designed for you, remember that your coach would not ask you to complete this challenging workout if you were not capable of it.

Maintain perspective.  Remember that there will be rough stretches in any challenging run or race, where you don’t know if you will be able to continue or keep running at your desired pace.   After all, if it was easy, everyone would do it, right?

Form a mental picture of yourself as a graceful athlete or animal, envisioning your running form as smooth and relaxed.  Towards the end of your run, recall your visual image of completing your goal, involving as many senses as possible (see above).

A surprisingly effective physical strategy is instead of slowing down, try shortening your stride and running a bit faster.  This recruits muscle fibres and motor nerves that aren’t as fatigued as the ones you have been using and will allow you to run easier.


Days Leading Up to the Race

If you find yourself becoming overly apprehensive, take time out. Focus on deep breathing and relaxing your muscles. Meditation and yoga are both effective in reducing anxiety and promoting relaxation.


During Race

Implement the same mental strategies that you’ve rehearsed during difficult workouts.

It’s not possible to discuss every aspect of mental preparation in a brief article.  But we guarantee you that by practicing at least a few of these tactics, you won’t let mental speed bumps ruin your race.  It will be your day to shine!

Our request to you – please share your favourite way (mantra or other) to defeat negative self-talk during training or racing.


© 2013 Savvy Runner Inc.

We welcome your feedback, suggestions and comments.  Please post them below.

IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO USE THIS ARTICLE IN YOUR EZINE, BLOG, WEBSITE OR PUBLICATION, you can – as long as you include: “Bennett Cohen (The Savvy Runner) and Gail Gould are the Founders and Presidents of the International Association of Women Runners.  To learn more about this global community of women runners, visit


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6 Responses to How To Defeat Negative Self-Talk
  1. Heather B
    July 31, 2013 | 12:27 pm

    “Trust the training” is what I remind myself. If I have a tough run and start to doubt my race readiness, I look back at my training schedule and how far I’ve come. If I’ve followed the training schedule (which I always do to my best ability) then I must be ready. That works every time!

  2. Bennett
    August 1, 2013 | 11:24 pm

    Heather, thank you for sharing your mantra that helps you overcome self-doubt and race your best.

  3. Minta
    August 8, 2013 | 11:42 am

    Thank you for this, VERY helpful & inspirational.
    My Mantra on long runs:
    “every breath draws me closer to my goal”

  4. Bennett
    August 8, 2013 | 10:43 pm

    Way to go, Minta.

  5. Half-Crazed Runner
    August 23, 2013 | 9:36 am

    Great article. I aways think of that saying,”Your biggest competitor is between your ears!”

  6. Bennett
    August 23, 2013 | 1:53 pm

    Very true. Thanks for sharing your wisdom.

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