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I was the fat kid who wore a shirt into the pool.
I guess I was worried about offending people—or embarrassing myself—with my muffin top and jellyrolls. In reality, the people at the pool didn’t care. But, even if they did, it wouldn’t have mattered. If I could go back in time and tell that self-conscious cherub one thing, it would be simple: accept yourself and don’t worry so much about what other people think.
In Tools of Titans, Tim Ferriss says that “10 percent of people will find a way to take anything personally.” In my experience, this applies to running as much as it applies to everyday life. The trail-running community is amazing, but, as with any sport or group of people, there will always be someone who disagrees with your decisions, no matter how genuine your intentions.
Given how easy it is to internalize criticism, especially in a sport like running that lends itself to vulnerability, it’s important to think about how you will react to those voices of judgment. Here are five tips to being yourself and running with confidence.
1. Wear what you want to wear when training and racing.
This article was prompted by a comment from an athlete I coach, who was dealing with the first heat wave of spring on the East Coast during his long run. In his training log, the athlete said, “Wanted to take my shirt off but didn’t.” He didn’t want to offend people who saw him.
This tendency to go against actual desires for the perceived desires of others applies to people of all genders, shapes and sizes. I’ve had men who love split shorts, but don’t want to wear them because of judgment about their hairy legs, and women who love the freedom of running in just their sports bra, but don’t want to be deemed “inappropriate.”
My response is always the same: wear whatever you want, not what you think others want. That can mean that the man wears longer shorts because he likes them more or the woman wears a shirt because she is happier that way. But don’t let other judgmental Jimmies and Janes influence your wardrobe choices, especially as the weather gets warmer.
2. Discern the intentions of advice givers or criticizers.
Running training often involves putting yourself out there. Whether you are running in a public park with a local trail group or logging your runs on Strava, there are usually people who have a general understanding of what training you are doing on a day-to-day basis. And training opinions are like running shoes—most of us have lots of them, and some of them stink.
So it’s likely that lots of people will give you unsolicited advice—mansplaining (or womanscribing) for the running world. I have seen some athletes internalize this advice in a way that negatively affects their happiness, and sometimes hurts their training, if the advice is particularly stinky. So instead of taking everything at face value, ask yourself two questions.
First, what is the advice giver’s goal? Lots of advice is just ego or selfishness in disguise. You can discard that, since there are better sources of knowledge out there.
Second, if the advice giver is genuinely caring, do they have the whole picture? Lots of factors go into deciding what type of running you should do each day, and usually you, a close friend or a formal coach is the best person to understand how it all fits together.
If someone passes the test, listen and take notes. If they don’t, respond politely: “Thank you so much. Have a great day!”
3. Don’t be self conscious about training paces, training distances or race results.
A large portion of speed and durability is genetics. A primary determinant of training volume is life circumstance. So a lot of race results aren’t a reflection on how hard you work or how much you want it, but how fortunate you are genetically and how flexible you are professionally.
With that in mind, when it comes to training and racing, don’t glorify people at the front of the pack, and don’t beat yourself up if you are at the back of the pack. The person who finishes last in a race usually has a more interesting story to tell than the person who finishes first. Instead of focusing on results, emphasize deriving self worth from the process of running and life.
4. Put yourself out there.
One thing I’ve learned through developing close relationships with athletes: almost everyone feels a bit lost, and simultaneously thinks that everyone else has their stuff together. By being open and honest, we can foster a community ethos that accepts flaws, rather than one that (sometimes falsely) projects perfection.
My favorite athlete to follow is Amelia Boone. In addition to being an elite obstacle-course racer, Boone holds down a full-time job as a lawyer. On her social channels, she shares all of the ups and downs of her training and everyday life, particularly with regard to injury and recovery.
5. Root for other runners’ successes.
The previous four points in this list are about turning inward and deciding, “I am enough.” This last point is about turning outward and deciding, “We are in this together.”
Trail running, like life, is not a zero-sum game. Someone else’s success does not mean your failure, and someone else’s failure does not mean that you move up a spot in some imaginary ranking system.
So practice rooting for everyone, even your rivals. Your training partner? Definitely root for him or her to set a PR. That public figure online? Scream your lungs off in joy when they finish their race. The person that said something critical to you or about you? Root for that person, too.
By being a fan, you get more fans. By being a critic, you only find self-indulgent satisfaction.
Be yourself, accept yourself, love others and, by all means, if you want to, take that shirt off.
David Roche runs for HOKA One One and NATHAN, and works with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play.