As someone who writes about health and fitness for a living, I regularly find myself chatting with people about workouts. And, as one of the most classic workouts around, running often comes up in conversation.
But when people ask if I'm a runner, my answer is pretty much always a noncommittal: "Um, sort of." Which is interesting, because that thing I do a few days a week in the park near my house certainly looks a whole lot like running.
Before I even realize what I’m saying, I hear myself explaining, "Oh, I'm not very good, I'm not training for anything, I don't run long distances, I'm a little slow." My list of “buts” goes on. Even though I'm all about leisurely two- to three-mile runs, I've always had a hard time just answering that question with a resounding "yes," sans disclaimers.
Funnily enough when I ask other people the same question, many of them will also tell me that they're only "sort of" a runner, followed by those same caveats. And my response to them is always the same—it still counts! I know this, and I preach it to other people. I sometimes still find myself in this weird "I run, but I'm not hardcore enough to be a runner" limbo.
For the last year, I've been actively trying to fight my gut reaction to deny myself the runner label. And throughout the process, I’ve learned two things: why it’s so hard for me to own it, and more important, how I can work to change my mindset.
I never identified as a runner growing up—in fact, I despised running.
Growing up, there were few things I hated more in life than being forced to run.
Completing the mile in middle school phys ed was 13-year-old me's version of torture. My senior year of high school, the final in my gym class was finishing a 5K in under 31 minutes (so, an average pace of about a 10-minute mile). I finished it in 34 minutes, which I was proud of, until it dropped my grade from an A to an A-. My freshman year of college, I'd drag myself to the indoor track because I felt like it was what I was supposed to do, because the other women in my dorm did.
I hated being forced into running, either by other people or by the pressure I’m putting on myself because I feel like it’s what I’m supposed to be doing. And all this time, I told myself (and every gym teacher I ever had) that I sucked at running and always would. I now realize that this protected me from ever feeling like I'd fail at it. My expectations were set at zero, because I didn't believe that I could meet even the most basic goal. After all, I "just wasn't a runner."
Even after I started to actually like running (gasp), I never felt like I could call myself a runner.
The impossible happened in my early 20s. I stopped hating running.
It started out when I realized that running was a convenient workout to do while traveling abroad. All I needed were sneakers, and it was a great way to explore new cities while getting in some exercise. Win-win. Even when I wasn't traveling, I continued to run two or three miles here and there when I didn't have time to make it to a gym and back for a full workout.
I realized I liked running when I was doing it my way—as in, no gym teacher telling me to "pick up the pace." Even still, I felt unworthy of accepting the title of runner.
Because I knew runners. These were people who signed up for 10Ks and half-marathons. People who followed training schedules and tracked their mileage on Garmin watches. People who posted photos of race bibs on Instagram. Even people who ran the same amount as me but looked more like what I thought runners were supposed to look like—women who were leaner than me, had more defined calf muscles, and wore more running-specific gear.
Me? I had no real running cred. (Or so I told myself.)
The truth is, “impostor syndrome” has been a pretty big theme in many areas of my life, including running. Sometimes, just the activity itself left me feeling fraudulent—as if by heading out for a jog, I was “posing” as a runner, and I was tricking people into thinking I accepted the title even though I wasn’t worthy.
So while I liked going out for a run, every time someone passed me on a trail or I took a walking break when someone else kept going, it fed right into my own narrative that I wasn’t a runner. As far as I was concerned, I wasn't good enough at it, or committed enough.
But starting to uncover what I actually love about running has helped me chip away at my impostor syndrome.
About a year ago, I challenged myself to focus on only doing workouts that I actually enjoyed. I was kind of in a slump, feeling disenchanted by exercise, and thought that if, once and for all, I gave up what I “should” do for what I liked to do, maybe I’d get excited about fitness again. Soon into my experiment, I was surprised to find myself gravitating toward short, 20- to 30-minute runs.
I started noticing some patterns around when and why I opted for a run. From a practical standpoint, running is super convenient for me. And sometimes, it's not even about the exercise. It's a great excuse to get some fresh air, listen to music or a podcast, and reset when I'm feeling frustrated, overwhelmed, or even just excited. And sometimes it's just, "because I feel like it," which is also a perfectly good reason.
Finding myself actually opting to spend time running made me realize that there's no better reason to identify as a runner than actually wanting to run and then spending time on the road doing it.
I’ve started saying “yes,” more often when people ask if I’m a runner. Not every time, but I’m getting there.
Don’t get me wrong. I still have to actively and intentionally remind myself that I have just as much of a right to be running around the park by my house as anyone else there. But the rewards of actually calling myself a runner (even on days I don’t feel like I’m worthy of it) have actually made running more fun for me. Being able to own it, to say “I do this thing and I do it for me,” is more powerful than I thought it would be.
What’s more, this practice has allowed me to take a hard look at the other areas of my life, like my job and relationships, and work on shifting my thinking about my motivations and what I deserve in those areas too.
Ultimately, my runs are great for my physical and mental health, and right now, I'm absolutely content with not increasing my mileage or speed—there's no benchmark I need to meet to feel like a runner anymore, because for me, the reward is in each short run itself.
That's not to say I'll never run a long race. I've toyed with the idea of a half-marathon in 2019, but for now, the most official run I've got planned is a four-mile turkey trot on Thanksgiving.
But even if I didn't, I'd still be a runner. No disclaimer necessary.