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What Is Impostor Syndrome and How Do You Deal with It

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A seminal 1978 article in the journal Psychotherapy used the “impostor phenomenon” to describe a feeling of internal phoniness that prevented people from attributing their success to themselves, rather than to circumstances or luck. Oh … crap. I just realized that I started this article with a definition, like I’m writing a fourth-grade book report. Crap crap crap.

I bet this article is the moment people figure me out. I am a one-trick writing pony. Wait … why is this pony writing? I should just give up. Stupid phony pony.

That little diversion was meant to put some of my internal dialogue on the page to demonstrate a taste of what the impostor syndrome looks like for me. Chances are you have those feelings sometimes too. Impostor-related feelings are highly prevalent, positively correlating with anxiety and stress, and they often sabotage long-term growth and happiness.

Screw all that! The impostor syndrome thrives because our brains are telling us that we aren’t enough, often supported by societal pressures, particularly for women and racial minorities. Together, we can work on flipping that narrative. You are freaking amazing just the way you are, and you are loved from the surface of your skin down through every nook and cranny in your soul. Yes, I am loved too, even after that oddly gross statement about nooks and crannies.

Impostor Syndrome for Athletes

It’s not all that easy, though. I wish it was! If only we could all think about ourselves like golden retrievers think about us. Because we aren’t floofy dogs, it’s key to find some strategies to confront the impostor syndrome head-on.

The strategies are especially important for athletes. Every day as an athlete is opening yourself up to self-evaluation and comparison that can lead to dark places. I hear it constantly from athletes of all levels.

“I am just tough, I have no actual talent.”

“That good run/race was lucky.”

“I wouldn’t call myself an athlete.”

The impostor athlete will often sabotage their own development because they can’t believe that they have earned their successes. Maybe they run too much and overtrain. Maybe they give up on themselves before they even get to a race start-line, sure they aren’t worthy of success. Maybe they’ll just be so down on themselves that the neurophysical context of training is not conducive to adaptation and growth.

You can probably see where that train of thought goes (side note: every train thought should go here). Impostor training may be overdoing it with mileage or intensity, underdoing it for fear of taking chances, or burning out altogether from the emotional strain. The impostor may seem humble, but behind the humility is deep-rooted insecurity.

But here’s the exciting part. Behind that insecurity is a fundamental flaw, an exhaust hatch in the Death Star. Because remember…you are enough and you are loved just the way you are. Internalize that narrative as an athlete and as a community, and we can blow up the impostor syndrome and celebrate like a bunch of furry Ewoks.

It’s all way more complicated than that, of course. Let’s review some of the basics of the impostor syndrome before getting into how we can confront it in our running lives.

Impostor Syndrome Basics

The impostor syndrome is subject of a ton of scientific articles, so I’ll try to do a quick summary here, but I’ll probably leave some things out. In an article about the impostor syndrome, that was a sentence brought to you by the impostor syndrome.

In articles, “impostor” generally means that people have trouble taking ownership of their accomplishments. People dealing with it may be able to see the objective reality of their situations, but deflect the cause-and-effect away from their own talents and efforts. Maybe it’s timing, or luck, or networking, or lowered standards. Whatever they attribute it to, impostor syndrome feels like falseness, like a movie set that is ready to blow away at the first gust of wind.

From there, the impostor syndrome can spiral to major mental and physical health struggles. One scenario that is presented often in the literature involves fear. Someone suffering from the syndrome fears that they will be found out, so they have to take on more responsibilities and work even harder until they feel like they are fully submerged under the waves of pressure and guilt. The fear leads people to grab onto their mistakes (or perceived mistakes) as examples of their true self, like the Red Woman in Game of Thrones taking off her necklace (Google that reference with Safe Search on). For an athlete, that might look like someone thinking that their bad days or injuries define their true athletic self.

Stress and anxiety come next, often combined with perfectionism and overworking tendencies. All of this can culminate in retreating from support networks, and ultimately, giving up altogether.

Most studies indicate that impostor feelings are most prevalent in women and non-binary individuals, but they are also present in men. The same goes for racial minorities. Background plays a role too, with family influence and pressures being important. But like many psychological phenomena, most people have the kindling somewhere in their brain, and there are plenty of matches in everyday life.

Running Through It

Running is one match awaiting a spark. It’s easy to compare to others, compare to past versions of yourself, compare to imagined versions of what you could be. I only got to where I am because of hard work, so only more and harder work will lead to more outcomes, right? One good race is an anomaly. Ten good races are 10 anomalies. There’s always the next race or goal. The next injury. The next epic fail. So many chances to show my true weaknesses.

I see it constantly in training logs, including from some of the fastest pros in the sport. I want to scream BUT YOU ARE OBJECTIVELY AMAZING! WHY CAN’T YOU SEE WHAT I SEE?!

Then I think about myself. My mini-panic every time one of these articles gets published, waiting for the first comment that points out that we’d all be better off if you gave my Mac to a monkey. Or when someone leaves coaching and I have to spend a day on affirmations to make sure I remember that I don’t suck. Sometimes, it’s easy to be an ignorant jerk to yourself.

So what do we do? Psychological issues like the impostor syndrome run deep, and there’s no simple answer to that question. However, there is a simple goal. As individuals, we can try to accept ourselves as much as we can. As scholar (and Hall of Fame wide receiver) Terrell Owens said, “I love me some me.” As a community, we can strive to create an atmosphere of unconditional love, a fertile bed where that self-acceptance can grow.

Running Tips

In training, avoid quantified self-evaluation unless that fills your heart with joy. You can leave the GPS watch at home if it doesn’t lift your soul up, and you should probably not be taking mile splits unless you can feel good about yourself no matter what those splits say.

Prioritize recovery. Growth happens in the empty spaces, and the impostor syndrome can view empty spaces as mini-failures. Quietly reason with the impostor in your head, reminding it that the body knows stress, not miles, and that balancing stress is key. Eat plenty of food because that is really fun and it’s essential for long-term development.

Embrace your talent. Coaching has shown me that almost everyone underestimates their talent a massive amount. It’s almost comical at this point. I view one of my main roles as a coach as helping an athlete realize that what’s inside of them is so much more than they might think.

And perhaps most importantly, remember that there is no light at the end of the tunnel, just more tunnel. There is no endpoint of validation that will come from running, that’s for sure. You’re going to screw up and fail, many times over. That’s part of the fun! We can celebrate that together alongside the successes. We can celebrate the fear alongside the joy, the tears alongside the laughs, the broccoli alongside the pizza.

So embrace the darkness in the tunnel as much as you can, even if it’s daunting sometimes. Grab a light, find some friends, and ideally a therapist or other professional to talk to. We’re all in this tunnel together, and together, we form an amazing tunnel gang.

David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. His book, The Happy Runner, is about moving toward unconditional self-acceptance in a running life, and it’s available now on Amazon.

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