How to Build Your Confidence As a Runner

Small victories along the way are everything

“Never underestimate the power that one good workout will have on your mind. Keeping the dream alive is half the battle.” — Kara Goucher


A couple of weeks ago, when I asked you guys the subjects you were most interested in hearing about, this email from a reader named Wendy really stood out.

Here’s what she wrote:

“I think the single most issue I need help with the most is overcoming self doubt. I struggle with this mightily!! I am not sure why or what causes it except that I don’t excel in self-confidence.

If there were articles about challenging self-doubt or strategies to overcome it, I would love it. I know you have written about this before but it is an ongoing challenge for me. And, what’s worse, is that I have been a runner my whole life. You would think by now I would have gotten past it but it is still a problem.”

For you and me both, Wendy. For you and me both!

I’ve shared with you guys in the past that self-confidence is something that’s a continual struggle for me, too. I find that it’s a lot like pushing a rock up a hill — I make progress in fits and starts, but there’s always this gravity-like force pulling back at me at the same time.

In response to Wendy’s question — which is on many of our minds, no doubt — I thought I’d share is something I wrote for our paid subscribers last fall, right after the release of running great Kara Goucher’s book Strong:

How do we boost our confidence?

Her book’s subtitle — “A runner’s guide to boosting confidence and becoming the best version of you” — caught my eye when I heard about it last summer.

For many of us, this is a big part of why we run — to feel physically confident, to develop our belief in our own abilities, or to learn what it’s like to feel confident, many of us perhaps for the very first time in our lives.

It’s what I hear when I receive emails from so many of you guys. I can’t tell you how many emails I’ve received asking questions about whether, at a certain age or experience level, the writer is ready to try for a certain distance, or whether they’re ready to run 13 miles at all.

The only honest answer I can offer is — without getting to know each writer one-on-one — I don’t know. That really depends on your health, the time you have to devote to running, and how important your dreams and goals are to you.

But the one thing I do feel it possible (and responsible) to say is, each and every one of us can change the way we feel about our potential as runners. I know it’s happened for me during the years I’ve been running.

It’s not something I set out to do when I started running, however. It’s more like it “just happened.” I discovered that I felt completely comfortable going out to run 15 miles — but only after I’d run 13 or 14 the week before. My conscious mind didn’t have any say.

Can we intentionally change the way we think and feel?

With her book, Goucher is trying to help runners lift themselves up with mental tools — like positive self-talk, achievable-yet-ambitious goals, visualization techniques and more — so we don’t have to simply wait for confidence to descend upon us, perfectly wrapped like a gift.

You’ve no doubt heard of techniques like these before, but in my own mind I’ve always wondered: how do they really work? I’ve long been fascinated by the work of sports psychologists like Jack Llewellyn, who famously helped pitcher John Smoltz rejuvenate his baseball career, and Bob Rotella, who’s written several books on the mind-body connection in golf.

The contrast between those sports — which require such finely-tuned physical skill — and running has always seemed stark, because what’s more simple and intuitive than running? I always thought to myself.

What Goucher shows is there’s much more going on here than I’ve appreciated, and that each of us can take a much more active role in improving the way our minds work than I understood.

Keep in mind that while the techniques she describes in Strong are simple, they’re not necessarily easy to adopt. Or at least they haven’t been for me — I’ve tried using positive self-talk in the past, repeating phrases that I think will change my mindset, and I only end up sounding to myself like Stuart Smalley!

(Also keep in mind that Goucher has worked with some of the best sports psychologists in the field, for several years — which means it takes time and practice for these techniques to sink in.)

Read, Listen, Watch

‘Mind Gains.’ This great profile from 2010 takes us back to a time when Goucher was nearing the peak of her professional running career, before she’d had a chance to do the mental work she writes about in Strong. The opening lines set the stage: “Her head has always messed with her. For as long as she can recall, it's thrown hammers at her feet. Some runners have trick knees or fragile hamstrings. She has an undermining psyche.” This pulls back the curtain on how our minds can work against us, and how we can turn that around. (Read it here.)

On the need to do the work for oneself: In this podcast, Goucher shares why her book is designed as something the reader participates in as much as the writer, by providing plenty of space for you to write your own confidence journal in its pages (and what you’ll get from that). (Listen here.)

On dealing with expectations — others’ and your own: Kara talks with Maria Shriver about how the expectations we have for ourselves or our ability to perform can shackle us, and how women especially aren’t raised to learn about what they’re good at. “The women at my retreats, nine times out of ten, they’ll tell me ‘I’m good at caring for my family.’ Instead, she pushes them to talk about an intention for something they’re going to do for themselves in next year. (Watch it here.)

Things you can try

Record every run. Whether it’s automatically via your Apple Watch or Garmin, or writing pen to paper in a notebook, Goucher is a strong proponent of creating a journal to record everything you accomplish as a runner, from a short 2-miler all the way up to your race day. Taking notes on how you felt, the toughest stretches and how you handled them, gives you the ability to look back at how you’ve succeeded and handled challenges over time.

Talk to yourself with intention. A river of thoughts is coursing through your mind (and mine) right now, influenced by everything you’ve seen and done — as well as your reflections on them. In all honesty, this is one of the hardest things for me to do. But I’ve found that trying to emphasize the positive in my own mind follows a flywheel effect — it’s really hard to get it started, but once you do, that movement seems to reinforce itself, which in turn fuels different actions and choices.

Visualize the finish line. Do you want to cross the finish line of your goal race feeling strong and vibrant, or barely able to crawl across it? (I think I know the answer to this one!) Starting with the end in mind both allows you to focus on the thing you want to achieve and on breaking it down, smaller goal by smaller goal, so that your experience will live up to your vision for it.

Wear running clothes that make you feel strong. I have one running shirt that’s my all-time favorite and one that... isn’t. I feel like an overweight schlub in it, but strangely enough it always seems to be clean and ready to go in my closet! One of Goucher’s tips is to always have clothes ready that make you feel good and look good, that you have the strength for the challenge in front of you. It may sound like a small thing, but in my experience it works better than you think it will.

Cultivate your running-related social connections. We’ve talked about this before, and a reply I received from a reader named Eileen hit the nail on the head of why this works so well:

“I think missing out on the community that running can offer is the number one mistake of runners...

I had a few people over after the [road race in her city] and another resident of the building started chatting with us. My running buddies and I had a great time, but she did not and said she hated running.

After a few minutes of chatting with her about running it was clear: she needed running friends, not just tagging along with her boyfriend, who is a faster runner.”

Amen. Building a community of supportive people, who get why we’re doing this and are on the same path themselves, can be a huge lift to any runner trying to achieve a goal, or just become a better version of yourself.

What is your experience like? I’d love to know what you think — feel free to reply back, or share your thoughts in the comments below.

Your friend,

— Terrell


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UConn Health Half Marathon on Iron Horse

Simsbury, Conn. | Sunday, June 2, 2019

Runner’s World’s Bart Yasso called this race one of his favorites across the country a few years back, and one look at the course and it’s easy to see why: a route that alternates between tree-lined roadways and wide-open farm fields just outside this historic Connecticut small town, which lies a short drive from nearby Hartford. The race’s double-loop course takes you over a pair of bridges and on a combination of rolling rural roads and paved biking and jogging paths.

$70 and up | Sign up here


Gorges Ithaca Half Marathon

Ithaca, N.Y. | Saturday, June 15, 2019

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$95 - $105 | Sign up here


The Santa Rosa Half Marathon

Santa Rosa, Calif. | Sunday, Aug. 25, 2019

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$135 and up | Sign up here


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$92 and up | Sign up here


Markel Richmond Half Marathon

Richmond, Va. | Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019

A flat course for nearly your entire 13.1 miles awaits at this classic fall race in Virginia’s capital city, where you’ll run a long, flat straightaway down Broad Street for the first couple of miles, through the Virginia Commonwealth University campus. Later stretches take you on a loop through 262-acre Bryan Park as well as along wide, flat tree-covered avenues, where you’ll get to take in much of the city’s historic architecture and homes. You’ll finish back downtown at the Canal Walk, along the Richmond riverfront.

$85 - $125 | Sign up here


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Cocoa, Fla. | Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019

Like you’ll find at July’s San Francisco Marathon, this race offers two half marathon routes to choose from — either the first or the second half of the full marathon, both of which unfold along the almost all-flat Rockledge Drive on the banks of the Indian River. The elevation never drops below 10 feet above sea level or rises above 40 feet above sea level, and what hills there are, are long and gradual. You’ll run just a few miles away from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, so don’t be surprised if you see runners on the course decked out like Star Trek Klingons or in Princess Leia outfits from Star Wars.

$99 - $115 | Sign up here


Islamorada Half Marathon

Islamorada, Fla. | Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019

You’ll run almost entirely along the Overseas Highway that stretches from the mainland of the Florida peninsula all the way to the end of the Keys at this race, which is all fast and flat thanks to its location just a few feet above sea level. While you can expect to encounter a few small bridges and a few detours onto roadside paths, the course will be pancake-flat nearly all of the way — and run through some of the most scenic stretches of these small islands.

$90 - $120 | Sign up here


Austin Half Marathon

Austin, Tex. | Sunday, Feb. 20, 2020

You’ll get the chance to run with 20,000 of your closest friends at this race through green, tree-lined city parks, across bridges over the Colorado River, and through the urban heart of this city, where the South meets the West. The half marathon route climbs roughly 250 feet between the start and the 4th mile marker, but you’ll have 4 hours to complete your 13.1 miles, which will unfold past sights like the Texas State Capitol building and the campus of the University of Texas.

$80 and up | Sign up here


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