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Running Imposter Syndrome: Why So Many People Who Run Don't Consider Themselves 'Runners'

Sep. 26 2023, Published 1:59 p.m. ET

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What makes someone a runner?

Do you have to participate in organized races like 5Ks, half marathons and marathons? Do you have to run over a specific pace? Is it required to run a certain number of miles per week? The answers to these running questions vary depending on who you ask.

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By definition, a runner is someone who runs — regardless of speed, frequency or distance. However, there are a ton of folks who run but do not feel they have "earned" the label. Some experts have dubbed the phenomenon runner imposter syndrome.

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Runner imposter syndrome is all too real — but why does it happen?

Chris Bennett, a Nike running coach, told Women's Health that imposter syndrome happens in running, perhaps, “more than any other sport. You never hear someone who plays pickup basketball say, ‘Well, I'm not a real basketball player’ when you ask them about it.”

He added: “When people introduce themselves to me, it's their name and that they suck at running. It’s fascinating to me that [running] is one of the only things in life that people are negative about immediately—especially something they're doing that takes courage and effort.”

The tendency to compare yourself to others can contribute to runner imposter syndrome — combined with how running is portrayed in the media (not tiring, no sweat, often glamorous) and that it is often a form of punishment for other sports (along with other negative associations).

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OK, but how do you work through runner imposter syndrome?

So you've acknowledged that you're dealing with runner imposter syndrome. Now what?

1. Rethink what makes someone a runner.

“I talk about words a lot—and if you look up the definition of running, it says ‘the activity of a runner,’” Bennett told Women's Health. “So, by a simple definition, if you're running, you're technically a runner.”

And even if you take a break from running or slow down — you're still a runner!

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2. Show up to run as the most confident version of you.

This is a mental exercise that can help you work through running imposter syndrome. Start by picturing the most confident version of you — and then channel this energy every time you run. It may feel awkward or fake at first but over time, it can help keep those thoughts of self doubt at bay.

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3. Be mindful when you run.

Just as you listen to your body by drinking water, checking your breathing or taking an energy gel while running, it's important to check in with the "conversation in your head," Bennett noted.

4. Celebrate running.

“Most people don't move for a host of different reasons,” Bennett told Women's Health. “Honor the simple fact that you're out there and moving, much less running.”

So pat yourself on the back for lacing up. You're doing it.

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5. Be kind to yourself.

If you find the "you" in your head is being a bully, pretend that you're encouraging a friend. Give yourself grace if you're struggling with your running performance after a long day, or if you're tired. Be your own cheerleader instead of a jerk.

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6. Focus on the positive.

It's easy to overanalyze why a run went poorly. But making a conscious effort to acknowledge when you feel good on a run or are unexpectedly flying down the street can go a long way

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7. Know that you're not alone.

“Running is still super, super challenging for everyone,” Lennie Waite, PhD, a sport and performance psychology consultant and former Olympian. “It's just that people’s ceilings and thresholds are different—and it can be oddly comforting to tell yourself of that.”


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