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Psychology: Embrace your inner runner

Psychology: Embrace your inner runner

How running shapes you as a person is the subject of a new book by sport scientist and author Dr Jason Karp. Here, he gives an insight into his findings

In nearly every way, including my relationship with the bathroom, my life has been defined by running. Every aspect of it is somehow influenced by being a runner.

When I speak, when I write, when I coach, and, of course, when I run. Everything I do, how I carry myself, is all influenced by running.

Not running means not being me. It’s remarkable that millions of other runners feel the same way. Here are some of the reasons why:

It heightens self-efficacy

Running strengthens our belief in ourselves and what we can do. It fills the hole created by insecurity. How many people do you know who run a marathon and then think they can do anything? How people feel about themselves and their capabilities is arguably the most important factor in determining what actions and directions people take in their lives. And it determines how successful they are.

Research on athletes has shown that the higher their self-efficacy, the better they perform. Indeed, athletes use self-efficacy statements more than any other strategy when trying to psych themselves up for competition. We are not just what we think; we are what we think we are.

Racing brings composure

Running, and especially racing, teaches you composure. There are lots of things that can happen during a race that can take you out of your game plan. Some of those things may have nothing to do with the race itself. It may be raining. You may have eaten too much pasta the night before. A relative may have recently died. Some of the distracting things may be directly related to the race.

Runners may be better than you, or they may start the race at too fast of a pace, or they may box you in when you race on the track, or you may get stuck behind a large crowd in a road race with little room to run your pace. Your training may not have gone the way you liked leading up to the race. You may have a cold. You may even feel in the middle of a race like you have to take the biggest dump you’ve ever had to take. It happens.

But whatever happens, you have to maintain your composure and focus on the task in front of you to earn the outcome you want. You have to focus on the reason you woke up early that morning and went to the starting line. That’s part of being an athlete. That’s part of being the better person you’re aiming, through running, to be.

It helps you deal with discomfort

Steve Prefontaine, who held the American record in seven different track events— from the 2000m to the 10,000m—before his death at the young age of 24, once remarked, “A lot of people run a race to see who is fastest. I run to see who has the most guts, who can punish himself into exhausting pace, and then at the end, punish himself even more.”

What is to be learned from all this punishment? Why do runners willingly inflict this discomfort upon themselves? Are we masochists who take pleasure in pain? Some runners, like Steve Prefontaine, are indeed of the masochistic variety, in that they truly get pleasure from the pain they feel during a hard workout or race.

I admit, during some workouts, I push myself just a little harder to test the limits of what I can handle. I internalise the pain, try to thrive on it, and let the effort be its own reward. It’s not easy to do this. It goes against the human nature to preserve our comfort. We like to be comfortable. But I do it anyway.

Most of us, on some level, think the pain is good for us. Somehow we think that the discipline and willpower to never quit, the willingness to give the effort of everything we have, leads to self-empowerment. If you can get through the difficult, and at times painful, runs and races, it empowers you, and that empowerment carries over to every aspect of your life. We rise above the pain, in running and in life. When you believe that you can accomplish anything, that is true personal freedom. You are no longer timid or scared of pursuing something, because your running has empowered you to be bolder.

Its effects are transferable

Committing to running creates a habit, not only of running, but of all the traits that it takes to be successful in all areas of your life, including discipline, devotion, and attitude. It takes a lot of discipline and devotion to get out the door to run, despite the weather or your mood or your kids or your schedule. And then do it again tomorrow. And tomorrow. And tomorrow. When you develop those traits, you can apply them to any other area of your life— your job, your family, your relationships.

When you throw yourself into running fully and clear of the doubts that hold you back, the payoff is extraordinary, no matter what the time reads on your stopwatch. Just as running makes your muscle fibres more resilient to fatigue and increases their ability to endure a faster pace, so too does it increase your physical and psychological ability to endure.

» Dr Jason Karp is one of America’s foremost running experts who has had research published in the scientific journals Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, and International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance. At age 24, he became one of the youngest US college head coaches and has been a competitive runner since 11. He is the author of The Inner Runner (Skyhorse Publishing, £11.99)

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