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Experiencing Impostor Syndrome in running

“I feel like an impostor. I think of all the great athletes I have met, the skilled and dedicated runners I know, and I feel as if I am a fraud,” Tom Foreman shared with Henry Howard in a previous interview about his book, My Year of Running Dangerously. Foreman, who ran cross-country in his youth, is a broadcast journalist for CNN — and has witnessed civic unrest, civil wars, earthquake carnage and more. Those experiences probably prepared him for an ultra-marathon journey. But even with his determination, Foreman might still have these thoughts in his head, wondering if he has trained too little or too much, and worrying that he didn’t have the physical stamina or mental endurance he needs. Even now that he’s crossed that finish line, the voice lingers. This voice may sound familiar to you, because you hear it, too. Many people just don't realize that they do, or if they know, they might not know how to handle it.

What is Impostor Syndrome?

In 1978, Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Dr. Suzanne A. Imes, two clinical psychologists from Georgia State University, first identified the “impostor phenomenon” as an internal experience of “intellectual phoniness.”

Their findings were based on a study involving “high-achieving women,” among whom they found this phenomenon to be particularly common. Despite having outstanding academic or professional achievements, women who experience the impostor phenomenon believe they’re not actually brilliant, and have only fooled everyone else to think they are. If this sounds familiar to you, then you know how powerful this feeling can be. Dr. Leilani Carver-Madalon, who teaches the online master’s program in strategic communication and leadership at Maryville University, points out how all this can have a profound effect on your daily life.

Though other people may not notice it, those with Impostor Syndrome will find it hard to truly celebrate any of their successes and accomplishments because of that nagging feeling that they don’t deserve any of them. This lack of confidence can affect your running, how you feel about it, and even the kinds of opportunities or goals you take on — if any.

“Another potential downside is that someone may not go for what they really want,” Dr. Carver-Madalon told Candice Georgiadis in an interview on Thrive Global. “This is often the effect of perfectionism and/or the fear of failure. If they only do what they are good at then they do not have to risk failure … They play it safe and then end up regretting it.”

This is especially true for runners and other athletes, who tend to be highly competitive in their respective passions. How does it manifest in runners?

As an athlete, you often open up to self-evaluation and comparison that may lead to dark places. You constantly hear athletes say, “I’m just tough, I have no actual talent,” or “That good race was just a lucky one,” or “I wouldn’t really call myself an athlete,” and many other similar lines.

Runners with Impostor Syndrome will often sabotage their own development, not believing they deserve their achievements. Some would run too much and overtrain. Others would quickly give up before even getting to the starting line. The impostor may seem like humility on the outside, but it’s actually deep-rooted insecurity. But like all invisible enemies, there’s a way to fight the impostor. How can you fight the impostor?

1. Avoid negative self-evaluation, especially in training. Sometimes, leaving the GPS at home helps. Just run for the sake of enjoying it, experiencing the sport as your long-time passion and not as a job. Once you find that feeling again, return to serious training. 2. Stop overtraining and prioritize recovery. Consciously argue with your impostor that your body needs to combat stress more than accumulate miles.

3. Eat healthy. For a mean machine to run, it needs quality fuel. 4. Embrace your talent. Don’t underestimate yourself. Turn your number one enemy, which is yourself, into your number one fan. 5. Most importantly, forget validation. There’s no single finish line for that. You’ll have too many of them to cross, and not all of your endeavors will be successful. But there will always be other starting lines. Embrace defeats — and know that triumphs always go alongside them.


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