I often have people ask me if I think certain “things” will make them faster runners. Some of the more common among these are speed work, cross training, weight lifting, eating meat, not eating meat, more hill running, less hill running, more mileage, less mileage, and so on. In some of these cases I think there are somewhat definitive answers. If you are running 15 miles a week and want to get faster at a marathon, then more mileage will almost certainly help with this. In most cases though, I think it comes down more to whether you think it will make you faster than it does to any scientific logic or certainty. In this sense, what I’m saying is that it’s often more about the mental aspect than the physical. In other words, I think confidence might just be the most important component of getting faster.

Thus, a very important question becomes: how do we build our confidence as runners?

Certainly you have to do the training, and put your body through enough physical stress that it will make physiological adaptations that over time will allow you to run a little faster with the same amount of stress. However, our bodies will not respond in the same way all the time to the same amount and same type of physical stress. Even more interesting is the reality that no two people’s bodies will respond the same way to the same amounts and same types of physical stress. In this sense it seems most logical to base your training on a constant process of trial and error. This process is also a really simple way to build our confidence.

It’s really this simple. You gather ideas and information from other runners, coaches, or any resources you come across. Then you implement these ideas when they make sense to implement them. If something new seems to resonate, you keep doing it, because this inherently builds confidence. This is the first part of the process, and this is something that virtually everyone is doing in all areas of life all the time.

Next comes the importance of training in ways that help build this confidence. If we’re feeling like we want to become better runners on technical trails we have to do more than just go out and run on technical trails. We have to run on technical trails in ways that make us feel like we’re improving. Sure, we need to challenge ourselves to get better, and sometimes this means running on terrain that might be a bit over our heads and that might leave us feeling “beaten” by the trail, but ultimately we need to believe we are good technical runners to be good technical runners.

How do we do this? First, shorten your stride. There is a lot of evidence out there that a shorter stride is actually more efficient anyway, but more importantly it’s a lot easier to run smoothly on technical trails with a shorter stride. Even if you’re going slower at first, you will very quickly gain confidence in how much easier it is to negotiate the terrain, and in no time you will find yourself running much faster on technical terrain with this shorter stride.

Next, find a technical trail that you enjoy and that is near where you live so you can run it a few times a week. In this way we get to know the trail. We can eventually memorize every rock, root, stump, and almost know ahead of time where to place our feet. As we memorize more and more of this trail, it will feel significantly easier to run than it does initially. With this our confidence will increase, and when this occurs we will not just feel like we are better trail runners, but we will in fact be better trail runners. When we take this higher level of confidence to other technical trails we might feel like we’re not that good, but we will be running smoother and faster without even realizing it.

Here’s another method which I highly recommend to increase confidence: Take measures to make yourself feel good about your hard and/or long training runs. Nearly every distance runner does long runs as part of their training. Most also do speed/interval runs as well. Certainly there is a physiological benefit to building endurance through long runs, and building speed through intervals, but I think it’s really hard to get much benefit from these workouts if we don’t feel good about them.

There are different ways to do this, but the simplest is to intentionally put yourself in a position to feel good about these runs. Don’t go into your longest or hardest run of the week totally tired out from staying up late drinking a six pack. Not that you can’t do a 30-mile Sunday morning run on three hours of sleep and a hangover (trust me, this can be done), but you are almost certainly going to feel better if you don’t have the hangover and the lack of sleep. There might not be a huge difference in what your body takes physically out of either method, but it’s not going to do a whole lot for your confidence if you finish the run feeling horrible.

Instead, try to create conditions in which you end these long runs feeling really good. Sleep and eat well the day or two before; start the run really easy so you can finish stronger; eat and drink really well during the run. Doing 30-mile runs will likely make you a stronger distance runner no matter how you feel (as long as you’re not overdoing it the rest of the week), but doing 30-mile runs in which you finish feeling great and, thus, really confident will make you a MUCH stronger distance runner. More benefit from the same workout. Seems like a good idea.

Of course, it’s not this simple. Gaining confidence isn’t as easy as just saying: “Take measures to gain confidence.” Sometimes we just feel sluggish no matter what we do, and other times we feel great when we don’t sleep or eat well. Sometimes we trip over dozens of rocks on a trail that we’ve run a hundred times and then hop on a trail for the first time and feel great. For the most part though, we will feel better in our runs when we make a conscious effort to do the little things that typically give our bodies the tools it needs to do so.

When this all comes together just right, we create a positive feedback loop that boosts our confidence, and it is the confidence we gain from this that will make us stronger than anything else we can do as runners.

There are 22 comments

  1. Sarah

    Great article Geoff. Having confidence in running is such a mental thing but you have to train to back up that confidence. I often look at training as half training my body to run and half training my mind to run. As an example I'm constantly surprised at how many ultra runners I talk to that don't, and have never run up an entire hill before. They've always been told to ALWAYS walk them. I tell them that I run the hills and it's like their eyes are suddenly opened to so many opportunities. I guess the hardest hill to run is the first one, after that you know you can do it and it gets a little easier.

  2. astroyam

    Yes, this is very true. This is why we can have a better race from just one interval session: we don't get fitter, but our minds accept that that higher level of intensity feels ok.

  3. Bartman

    Excellent article Geoff. You point out very nicely that the 'secret' to successful training and racing lies within yourself and not some magic training formula or latest gizmo. The magic formula is discovering what works for you and keeping an open mind that allows you to grow and improve which in turn aids and builds confidence. Nice write up. Thanks.

  4. Jason H

    Ever run with faster friends and suddenly those six min miles don't feel so hard at all? This changes the paradigm and opens your mind to the possibility of running faster when you're alone, or during a race. Of course, we know you can't be redlining all the time, but its a confidence booster!

    And Sarah, I agree on running hills. Of course learning to be a better hiker can help, but if you have limited time to train then try to run everything your body will let you. Confidence builder for sure!

  5. Drew Gunn

    There is a good book called RUN:The Mind-Body method of running by feel by Matt Fitzgerald that looks at some recent Neuroscience to see what training works and why. Basically enjoying what you are doing and performing the training that builds confidence are the main conclusions I reached from the book. Of course there is a certain correlation between hard work and physical gain, but there is a hefty mental component. There is no magic formula of distance and speed work out there. There is good science behind what you say amigo.

  6. Lucia

    This is such an excellent article, Geoff, thank you!

    I think confidence (or lack of) can also be influenced by the kind of people with run/ hang out with (unfortunately).

    When I started running, I joined a club, and of course I was slower, but also felt like I never progressed, even though I did all the recommended workouts. I got labeled as a slow runner, because I was slow as a beginner, but then somehow that label stuck, I could never "feel" faster or confident at all, it was just not a very supportive environment, I guess.

    Luckily, I tried a different club, where nobody knew me at all as a "slow" runner, and I didn't know who slow or fast runners were so didn't know whom to stick with on runs, so I just went with what felt good, and guess what, all of a sudden I am running much, much faster, and having tons more fun. Confidence is huge! :)

  7. Myles

    Thanks for the article, Geoff! I have been working to improve my confidence and adjusting my training in positive ways for the past several years. I am currently at my peak confidence level. A couple weeks ago I ran a short trail race and improved my time by five (5) seconds from the previous year. Not a huge PR in any way, but the fact that I have been training (running) way less compared to last year and overall the race felt effortless, was a great indication that I have been doing the right things. Oddly enough and great timing with your article, I was just thinking the other day about the 50 mile race I will attempt again in May, which I have DNF'd the past three years, and wondering how I can boost my confidence on race day to know this will be my year. The answer is easy – TRAIN!

    I also like what other commenters have said regarding running with faster friends. It is amazing when you are running at a fast pace(I recently paced a faster friend to a great finish at TNFEC SF) and realizing "okay, this is where I would be stopping now for a breather", but since you are pacing, you can't!! and you keep going outside the comfort zone. In the end I had more confidence to say, I was just as fast (my friend just ran fast longer)….obviously we fed off of each other!

  8. Patrick

    I would also add that getting a trainer or a coach can help a lot (I am not either). An independent voice can go a long way in giving you confidence and feedback.

  9. Sage Canaday

    Great writing and advice – esp. with just getting the 30 mile Long Run in, and feeling good about the training you choose to do (or believe the most in…even if it's from a coach or book).

    This brought back a memory from college cross country days: We were doing 5 by 1 mile on the track as a team with a short 3-4 minute rest (typical Vo2max interval workout). Before our 5th repeat (the last one and hardest of course), the head track coach at Cornell (Nathan Taylor) comes out of the shadows by the bleachers and loudly states: "This last one is all mental…it's all mental!" Although he mainly coached NCAA DI national champions in the triple jump and didn't know much about the physiology of distance running, his was an amazing motivational speaker. His simple statement got the whole team fired up for the last mile despite the fact that lactic acid was seeping into our muscles and we were hands-on-knees breathing hard in the middle of the workout. Anyway, I think we all pretty much ran within 15 seconds of our open mile PRs on that last rep!

  10. Andy

    When people ask me about training and running crazy long distances, I always quote Yogi: It *is* 90% mental, and the other half is physical. True for baseball, and way true for ultra running.

    Stretching yourself in training, whether its by running hills (like Sarah said), pushing the pace, or hammering long runs in tough winter conditions (I did a 30m snow training run in microspikes a couple weeks ago) all boost fitness and confidence simultaneously. When runs that used to be tough start to feels short and/or easy, confidence soars!

  11. Ultrawolf

    Everyone who saw the film "Unbreakable" could well see what confidence is all about: You were down 15 minutes on the two guys which were said to be the best ultratrail runners in the world. Instead of thinking "Yes, they´re simply better, I´m gonna save my 3rd place to be best of the rest" you still believed in yourself and that you can beat them – and you did.

    Having an effortless 30 miles training run in the legs certainly helps – but being unbeaten over the 100 mile distance like you back then doesn´t hurt either :-)

    Great writing, as always Geoff !

    Best wishes from Vienna


  12. Andrew Guitarte

    Like it! While trying to qualify for Boston, I kept telling myself "run as if you already qualified." You know what, almost instantly, my shoulders squared, chin leveled, steps went more sprightly, and boy, I smiled all the way to finish my time trial.

  13. Capn_Q

    Great perspective Geoff! As my training begins to seep into uncharted territory, I can see how confidence is helping; long runs which left me feeling trashed have been replaced by longer efforts with stronger finishes, which helps to dissolve the self-doubt brought on by being beaten down by a workout or two.

    Keep up the great work!

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