About two years ago, I subjected myself to a four-month, all-consuming running routine. It feels difficult to define or even explain now—I wasn’t training for a race, I had no specific running goals, and it often felt like a chore. Yet I kept logging mile after mile, cataloguing high-volume weeks, and longing for a result I felt was just around the corner—if only I could go a little farther.
The result I was searching for? Peace. Calm. Clarity. For years, I had used running to combat periods of low moods. Running offered time to focus, an instant boost in happy brain chemicals, and the feeling of accomplishment. But this time was different; running was not working. Still, the idea that if I could just keep pushing, I would eventually feel better became implanted in my brain. Running, like the bumper stickers say, was my therapy.
Well, I probably don’t have to tell you, but this mindset led to catastrophe. What I knew, but didn’t want to accept at the time, was that I have bipolar disorder. This wasn’t a new discovery (I was officially diagnosed in 2017), but it wasn’t something I was managing particularly well at that moment.
Sometimes, mental illness will lie and convince you that you’re cured, or that you don’t need help, or that your medicine is the devil. Sometimes, your rational mind is held hostage by these thoughts, and you distrust anyone who is trying to help you. Or you stop taking your medicine, and you try to outrun a disease—which is what I did.
About two weeks after I threw out my pills, my overtrained body could not keep running. I couldn’t sleep despite being so tired, and I didn’t want to live. Stopping the meds could have launched me into mania or made me plummet into a depression, but in this instance, it caused a horrifying mixture of both. With the support of friends and family, I reached out for help, got my medicine figured out, and rebooted real therapy. That sentence makes it sound like such a simple resolution, but it took months of healing and hard work.
It is actually incredibly empowering to build your life back from total collapse. Through this experience, I learned how to fight against negative and irrational thoughts that threaten to derail my mind. I used skills from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to regain balance—skills I remind myself of and practice every day. And when I started working out again, I recognized how powerful these little mental tricks can be in the context of distance running.
The urge to run came back when I started feeling like myself again. I had also started writing a book—a marathon training guide for women called Master the Marathon. The research and interviews with coaches and trainers made me want to get back on the road. I took the advice of my expert panel and started with low volume at a slow pace to avoid injury. The miles felt clumsy. I dawdled along, wondering when running would feel free and easy again.
One day, as I finished a casual run, I noticed what mental health professionals would call a “thought distortion” creep across my head. I think it was something like: “Well, that was the slowest run ever… You’ll never get in shape again.”
I talked back to the thought, reminding myself of how far I’d come and the joy of the process. I felt liberated from a too-familiar pattern of negative thinking. I also realized that this therapy thing might actually be useful to my training.
At the time, I was researching visualization techniques for marathon performance and had a few sports psychology experts on speed dial. I emailed Hillary Israelsen, M.S., a Utah-based sports psychology consultant and member of the Association of Applied Sports Psychology, and asked her about my newfound power of resetting thoughts. She confirmed: CBT can be extremely useful for athletes, especially runners.
For the unversed, CBT is based on the belief that people dealing with psychological problems can relieve symptoms by learning better ways of coping and remedying unhelpful ways of thinking. I’m telling you, applying the tenets of CBT can empower you in your miles. Here are some very powerful mental tricks (curated by someone who really gets it) to help anyone achieve short and long-term running goals.
1. Be Kinder to Yourself
Many of us speak negatively to ourselves—and sometimes we don’t even know we’re doing it. Think about it: Do you beat yourself up if you feel slow on a particular day? What do you tell yourself when you miss a run? Are you being nice to the image you see in the mirror?
Israelsen says she often has to make her clients see that there are consequences of their negativity. “The first thing is getting them to become aware of when they are using negative self-talk and the effect it is having on their performance,” she says.
You know that sentence I uttered to myself after a slow training run: “You’ll never get in shape again?” I never used to think of a thought like that as beating myself up. I thought I was making myself better, striving for goals, and being tough. Little did I know that this strange alter ego who was obsessed with perfection was actually berating the perfectly fine, perfectly capable runner inside me.
Once you realize you are doing it, make it a point to stop and ask yourself: “Would you speak to anyone else that way? Is that what you would say to an athlete after a race if you were their coach?”
Obviously not. Spend a week noticing how you speak to yourself. Rephrase whatever evil you are spewing in a way you would speak to a close friend or your younger, 5-year-old self.
2. Reframe Your Negative Thoughts
Nearly everyone experiences thought distortions. A very common mental block is focusing on the negatives and ignoring the positives about yourself, another person, or a situation.
When I ran my first marathon, for example, I finished in 4:01. I wanted to go sub-four. At the end of the race, I fixated on those two dumb minutes above my goal time. I cried instead of celebrating. Reframing that thought would sound like, “Wowie! I ran 26.2 miles and finished the race. That is an incredible achievement. Next time, I will achieve my time goal.”
You can also do this mid-run when everything hurts and you’re dying. Instead of “I am so tired, my legs feel like concrete,” reframe to “My legs feel like concrete because I have run 20 miles. That’s a lot of miles. I know these legs can get me to the end.”
3. Stop Your Negative Thoughts
If you catch yourself in the middle of a negative thought, try to visualize a stop sign or say the word “stop” aloud. Then replace the damaging phrase with a new thought. Make this new thought an “I am” statement that is something you are working toward. It doesn’t have to be toxic positivity or unrealistic. Try, “I am stronger than I feel right now.” Or “I am training for a 5K, and it is a work in progress.”
Thought stopping can also help unrealistic or anxious thoughts. For example, if you are stressing about an upcoming race and a series of terrifying “what if” statements (e.g., what if I don’t finish, what if my foot explodes, what if I poop my pants and vomit simultaneously?) start interfering with your normal thoughts, you can call upon the mental stop sign. Another method is to visualize the negative words or sentences and imagine them exploding, evaporating, or being erased.
4. Erase the Word “Should” From Your Brain
Get the word “should” out of your vocabulary! If you think, “I should’ve run farther,” try “I ran for a really long time, and I’m only going to get better.” If after a missed run, you think, “I should’ve run today. I can’t believe I skipped it,” try “I’ll get the next run in. One session won’t make or break my fitness” or “I gave my body a break, and maybe that’s just what it needed.”
5. Let Go of Self-Doubt
Self-doubt is sneaky and might appear even when you’re doing everything right. It could catch you two miles into an easy run. Or it might visit in the middle of your goal race. It often comes in the form of a question, like: “I’m running at such a great pace right now. Can I keep it up? I am feeling stronger than I ever have, but is this for real? Can I do this? Can I finish?”
The problem with self-doubt is that it can disguise itself as a rational thought. So you listen, and you might think you’re being pragmatic. I always thought I was being realistic and trying my best not to set myself up for disappointment. One day, during my second marathon training cycle, I sat down to eat lunch with a fast friend. She asked me how my training was going. I mentioned that I was feeling very strong, and so I was worried that I was peaking too early.
“Did you ever think that you’re improving?” she countered.
No, of course not! That type of clear-headed positive thinking would be very off-brand for me.
I asked sports psychologist and running coach Kirstin Ritchie, M.S., what we are supposed to do with self-doubt. “The main thing is to reaffirm that you are actually capable and draw on evidence to support that,” she says. “A lot of times, you limit yourself by what you believe you’re capable of.”
If we just let ourselves relax and run, we would be more than capable. When you hear yourself asking questions that sound like self-doubt, rephrase them: Here’s how:
Can I sustain this pace? → This pace feels comfortable. I am strong.
Am I training right? → I am following the plan and doing everything right. I am improving.
Am I ready? → I trust myself and the process. I am ready.
Can I finish? → I am ready and excited to finish.
Can I do it? → I am capable.
The Bottom Line
Applying these mental skills to running encouraged me to use them in the other parts of my life as well. I know there are tens of thousands of runners who use running to combat the symptoms caused by mental illness. There are also runners who struggle with negative thoughts that lead to overtraining, self-doubt, or performance anxiety regardless of having a diagnosed condition or not. I hope my experience will help you find peace and self-compassion in your own running.
These tips aren’t magic bullets—if you have a tendency to overthink, ignore the positive, or beat yourself up, it will take time before the more positive side of your brain takes control. But if you stick to it, I promise you will feel stronger than ever before.