Fear & Running

LLD: The following is another guest post from Scout. His first post, How to Run Like a Stoic, remains one of the most popular on the blog. Here, Scout takes up some of the same themes but looks more explicitly at some common issues in training. I think you will enjoy his straightforward and clear-thinking style and find his advice useful. Without further ado... 

I see the same questions come up again and again...

- "What pace should I run my race/training at?"
- "How do I avoid bonking in training/racing?"
- "Am I going to slow/fast/hard/easy?"

It seems to me that a number of people seem to base their racing and training plans on some sort of fear, and this fear stems from a perception of failure. People are afraid of failing in their training and racing. Which makes me wonder, what exactly constitutes this fear of failure in training and racing?

Fear of injury is most obvious; people hold back in training and racing out of a concern of getting injured. They relate injury with a failure to train properly, and I would tend to agree. However, I don’t consider this situation a failure; a mistake, sure, but not a failure, and not necessarily something that can always be avoided.

Fear of not finishing (or not finishing strong) also seems to be a major concern. People are obsessed with bonking, and how to avoid it, almost to the point where I don’t think most people even know what bonking really is. Cramping is more common. Nutrition during the event itself is almost always going to receive the blame for these situations, at least initially. The other root cause would be “running over your head”, which basically means going too hard for your current fitness level.

I have always taken the path of telling people that they need to slow down, train more, and give themselves time. “Run lots, mostly easy, sometimes hard” has been my mantra to new and experienced people alike. It’s simple, it’s pithy, and it encompasses the basic truths of training for pretty much anything. And people hate it for all those reasons, I’m sure. People want concrete answers, without having to think too much about it. Plans are great because they take away the responsibility of coming up with your own training, which is the third fear: fear of not knowing what to do.

At this point, I think I have discovered what the true root cause of these fears really is. It’s not really earth-shattering, but I do believe that it is rather instructive. The root of all these fears is goal-setting.

Fear of failure is essentially a fear of not meeting a goal. The aforementioned fears all relate to not being successful at running a certain time, or hitting a certain mile goal, or not finishing a specific race. Now, don’t get me wrong, I think goals are good; they provide a useful way to keep us motivated and to track progress. However, the goal has to be developed through careful thought. People seem to come up with rather arbitrary goals, that they thought sounded good. This arbitrariness is a recipe for dissatisfaction. If your goal is completely random, then what good is it? How can you chart a course to meeting it if you have no idea why you picked it in the first place?

Along with the arbitrary goal-setting is basing goals on things that you do not exercise full control over. I cannot control who my competitors are, or the weather, or the course (once I have picked a race, that is). What I can control is how I race that day. For example, many people pick a time goal for a race, and plan their race around that now sacrosanct goal. Instead of setting a time goal for a specific race, I plan on putting forth the best effort I can. My plan consists of putting forth my best effort, based on my current knowledge, training, and abilities. If I hit a certain time, it’s a bonus. But if I do not, then I can still be satisfied with how I ran the race. I have not failed, because my goal was completely within my control, and my grasp.

This concept of internally-based goals will seem completely counter-intuitive to many people. It’s nigh impossible to create a race plan with splits when you don’t have a goal based on time. The beauty, however, is the fact that you don’t need splits. You just race. You race by what you know about yourself. And that means that every race, every one, is a learning experience. You learn what effort levels feel like; you learn how well you climb hills or run flats; you learn how to finish strong. And if every race is a learning opportunity, then your day-to-day training provides you a wealth of information. Every time you step out that door, you have a chance to discover something about yourself.

Which leads me to my final point: your training and racing are your education, and you use that education to create realizable, internal goals, and those goals will lead to joy. Focus on setting goals that really matter. Running a certain time feels great, for a while. Then you start focusing on people who are faster or running more or running less, and you get caught up in the chase. Instead, consider focusing on doing your best, on learning something about yourself. If you bonk, so what? You learned something useful for next time. Can’t finish a run? No big deal.

In the end, if you let your fears dictate your goals, achieving your goals will never be truly rewarding.


  1. Thanks, Scout.

    This comes at a good time for me. I am trying to race much more frequently. My objective is to learn from and enjoy each race.

  2. Hey Nads,

    You're welcome! Yeah, I felt like this was timely because we are starting to get into the swing of spring racing season, as well as fall marathon training season, so a lot of people end up thinking about this topic.

    I also think there's a tie-in to Jeff's last post, specifically about the role running plays in our faith & hope in ourselves. If we view running as work, as something that needs to be done to achieve some sort of arbitrary time or distance goal, then we set ourselves up for potential failure. We don't get out or running all that we are putting into it. I've seen it, heck I've experienced it. I don't know many runners who haven't gone through that phase. The ones that come back to it, that keep grinding out the miles, the intervals, have moved beyond those sorts of goals, and have found a way to achieve a modicum of happiness.

  3. a wise man once said: goals are an invention of the man.

    or, something like that.

  4. I thought it was a woman, Ace. Please, these head-fakes are quite unsettling.

    Scout, I like how - despite your admonition against arbitrary obsessions - you still bring it back to racing.

  5. @ace - Exactly.

    @Rob - Thanks!

    @Nader - I bring it back to racing because most of the goals people talk about are related to race performance, and because I went through a struggle with my own perceptions regarding racing. How can I tell people that having time goals are holding them back on one hand, and on the other talk about wanting to be competitive and be faster than other racers? It was my search for some way to bring these possibly disparate goals together. I think that you can be a competitive person, and strive to do your best in a race, without getting hung up on numbers. I always loved racing; it was the pinnacle of training for me. That comes most likely from my cross country background, where time was seldom as important as trying to be in front of as many other people as possible. I don't recall ever obsessing over times when I ran on a team as I did afterwards, when I was running alone. I think that's because I didn't have the same goal anymore, and it ended up bringing down some of the enjoyment I got from racing.

    I don't know if that makes sense or not.

  6. that team aspect makes a lot of sense to me and it's one of the reasons i still love to play soccer. in running these days it seems like everything is chip timed. races that aren't chip timed are a totally different experience because it is like - get out there and just bust it. period. i ran one a few years ago, and i landed at 2AG which was a surprise. not relying on the chip to do me justice, i knew i had to do it for myself, and i surprised myself at how much justice i could do.

  7. Interesting - My current goal for the year is to get more joy out of running. I would like to do well in an August race and September race - but if I did not enjoy the year it will be a failure. The last 3 years have been a failure of sorts - A grind to the soul.

    That being said - I am really trying to learn to enjoy racing not being in the shape I used to be. I think once I get to the race - I really enjoy the process of getting the most out of your body. But I have mental baggage to want to show up to a race not in good shape. I say I do not care what other people think, but I must care or I would not think twice about it.

    I really do not have a fear of failure, but a fear of being seen as a failure? Which I know is silly.

    Michael Henze

  8. Michael,

    You summed up quite nicely something that I was alluding to in my post, but never outright stated: your goals should be about you, not about other people.

    I know that this issue is one I personally struggle with, and have for years. Again, I go back to HS, where all we did was run, and we never seemed to care a whole lot from day to day who had more miles, or faster splits. All we cared about was the next race, and seeing how well we could do against the field and against ourselves.

    Nowadays, we have unprecedented access to other people's training. I think this situation can be dangerous for people, especially when it comes to goal-setting. It's easy to get caught up in what other people are doing and try to meet or exceed some unwritten standard. It's easy to try to compare yourself to other people, but it's a dangerous road.

    Now, I'm not disavowing the use of online logs and communities; I think they serve a very real and useful purpose. But I think we need to take caution when determining what we want out of ourselves, our lives, and our running, and be on guard against letting outside influences have weight over our own selves.

  9. OK, I had a comment for Michael all typed up, but it got eaten by the worms. Anyway, I will do my best to recreate my initial thoughts. I apologize for taking so long to respond.


    You definitely hit upon something that I only barely hinted at in my post, and that is the source of goals. I know from personal experience that it's very easy, at least for some of us, to get sucked into a trap of trying to measure up to others. What I found is that these sorts of goals are the worst kind. A goal should be motivating, and give us confidence in ourselves. But when the goal is based on something or someone else, it's almost impossible to ever see achievement. And even when you do, it rings hollow. As I get on in age and experience, I have found that I am much more content with myself and my abilities when I separate them out from the achievements of others.

    Of course, I had to struggle through the concept of being "competitive" in races while still having goals that don't relate to others. What I found worked for me was to set a goal to do the best I could on race day, and if that meant I was 1st or 5th or 50th, if I finished feeling like I gave my all, then I could take pride in my race. If I felt like I ran the best race I could, given the course, the weather, my training, and my fellow competitors, then I was happy with it. Ultimately, our competitors are out there doing the same thing.

    My mistake (and I'm not saying this is yours or anyone else's) was to lose sight of my experiences in cross country. If I gave it my all, that was all my team could ask for. And really, that was all my fellow competitors could ask for. We honored and respected each other because we all knew that, while we each wanted to beat the others, we were going to do our best. It wasn't personal, yet it was deeply connected. I lost that sense of connection later on, when I raced to prove myself. I don't need to prove anything. And that's my more personal goal: learn to accept that I don't need to prove myself to anyone but myself.

  10. Thanks a ton to Scout for this post, and also to you brave commenters. Great stuff here!

    Just read a really interesting piece by Malcolm Gladwell on the difference between panicking and choking called "The Art of Failure." You can find it here: http://www.gladwell.com/2000/2000_08_21_a_choking.html

    It is interesting to think about the kinds of fears that running does (and doesn't) help us deal with; the comments do an excellent job of drawing these out.


  11. Excellent article, and it highlights two tremendous points about racing, fear, and goals:

    Firstly, experience counts for a lot, and I think that's something the experienced sometimes forget when addressing the inexperienced. How do you sum up countless miles of training and racing experience and distill it into something that someone without those experiences can easily grasp and understand? It is difficult at least. This experience is why I think most people "fail" in racing; they don't know how to even begin to set goals for themselves, since they don't know what is appropriate, or even possible.

    Secondly, I think that having external goals ("I want to run XX:XX") can easily lead to a vicious cycle of disappointment. We get caught up in trying to hit a time, or mileage, or whatever, and now those goals cross into training, which is exactly where we DON'T want those goals to be, and soon we're chasing someone, something, else. We become consumed with metrics that, on the whole, may not do much for our performance or our happiness.

    And lastly, it's interesting to me to see how having those external goals can actually lead to lowered performance. We set our sights on some far-off dream, work hard to try to chase it down, and in the end, dream in reach, we back off. We convince ourselves that we can't possibly achieve this goal. Perhaps the better option is to set goals that we can explicitly control ourselves. Have fun, put forth my best effort for today, try to learn something about myself or others. We control these goals, they do not control us.

    Thanks again, Jeff, for giving me a forum. Much appreciated. And to the readers and responders, I appreciate you as well.


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