Battle Negative Tendencies

Battling Your Negative Tendencies


Every runner has tendencies. Most are positive and help the runner toward her goal, but some are negative and are not helpful. A lot of coaching is identifying the tendencies in the athlete and then creating strategies to capitalize on the positive ones and reduce or if possible, eliminate the negative ones. In this article, let’s focus on the latter – reducing or eliminating your negative tendencies.

Common Negative Tendencies

After coaching a wide range of runners for over 30 years, I’ve learned a lot about finding the negative tendencies and helping reduce their impact. Here are some of the most common negative tendencies that are harmful to a runner’s goal:

Starting too fast in workouts

Skipping prehab routines

Not taking a proper rest period between training cycles

Poor snacking

Negative self-talk

Running too fast on easy days

Giving up in races

Dwelling on “bad” workouts


Poor preparation/Rushing fitness

Ignoring aches/pains/tightness

Overscheduling, particularly on key workouts days and/or before big races

Helping Kelly

I coach a woman named Kelly and she serves as a good example. She’s a dedicated and disciplined runner who over the last couple of years has dropped her marathon time from 3:52:37 to 3:21:48 and qualified for Boston. As you might expect, she has her sights set on a faster time in her next marathon (3:15) and I feel one of the keys will be overcoming her biggest negative tendency.

Kelly is a busy mom with three young kids. Her negative tendency is that toward the end of long runs and hard workouts, her mind is already on getting back to family and as soon as she hits the door, she, like many moms, puts her focus on everyone else. That, of course, is one of the greatest attributes of moms but for Kelly, it means that after hard and/or long workouts, she often skips her post-workout shake. As my article on the Runner’s Ultimate Nutritional Recovery Routine describes, there is a window of time after a carbohydrate-depleting session like a long run or hard workout or race where the restocking of the carbohydrate stores (called glycogen) is ramped up. Ingesting a shake of carbohydrates and protein in the 30 minutes post-workout window speeds recovery so you can perform better in your next run.

For Kelly, her tendency to skip the RUNRR-based shake means that her recovery is longer than it needs to be after her hard/long workouts. This then means the quality of her next key session is compromised and/or we have to delay the next key session by an additional day or two because she’s not recovered. Not a big deal from time to time but doing it regularly, which is what it seems like we are doing, means the total quality of her training goes down. And since she’s shooting for another big jump in performance, this makes a big difference.

Of course, this negative tendency is a very easy one to overcome and in her current training cycle, my rule (she calls is an “order”) is that before she does a hard workout or long run, she must prepare her shake and have it at the ready (either in the car for runs away from home or in the fridge for runs that end at her house). She MUST DRINK THE SHAKE within 30 minutes after her hard/long workout to take advantage of the enhanced recovery window. After just 3 weeks of the new strategy/rule/order, we are seeing that her recovery time is reduced, and the upcoming key workouts are of higher quality. Plus, she even has her kids involved as they help her make the shakes and then when mom comes home, they all take a RUNNR break for their recovery drinks.

Your “Order”

This week spend some time thinking about the negative tendencies that are hurting your running. Once you identify/acknowledge them, make a plan. Trust me. A small change in just one of your negative tendencies can make a huge difference in your training and racing.

Here’s a good exercise to do this week: Fold or draw a line down the center of a piece of paper. On one side, list your negative tendencies. Next, go back through your list and rank them in order of priority. Think about the one(s) that are easiest to overcome and/or are the one(s) that you feel will have the greatest impact if you can reduce them.

Then, on the other half of the paper, write down actions you could take to reduce or eliminate the negative tendencies. For Kelly, one side says, “Skipping post-workout shake” and the other side says, “RUNNR shake pre-made and ready post-workout.” Some actions are simple like Kelly’s and some are more complex. No matter what, just think through actions you could take to counteract or interrupt the negative tendencies. And remember that sometimes it’s about pre-planning so you aren’t tempted or set up for a negative tendency in the first place (ala Kelly’s pre-made shakes).

The last step in the exercise is to rip/cut the page in half and recycle the side with the list of negative tendencies. Post the side with the actions to overcome or eliminate the negative tendencies somewhere prominent so it will spur you to work on the positive actions. Give yourself time (and it’s not uncommon for a relapse every now and then) but I find that across a training cycle, athletes can really change their behaviors. It’s really just about focusing on a new way of doing things – new habits and behaviors.

Final Thoughts

The mind is very powerful and most of the negative tendencies are simple behavior patterns that just need some focus in order to change them. Let’s commit to harnessing the power the mind in this training cycle. With some commitment, you can make a significant impact on your running.

More Examples:

Alice the Ace:

Alice is a pro runner of mine and her negative tendency is to start too fast in workouts. No matter how much I provide guidance of the pacing, she charges off and always runs too fast in her workouts. Naturally, this either leads to us having to do less work (because she’s so tired) or she bulls her way through the workout yet doesn’t get the stimulus we wanted. Often, this compromises upcoming workouts as I have to scramble because the training fatigue is greater than was planned.

To fix her tendency, I use two solutions. For short, fast repetitions (like 200-meter or 400-meter repeats on the track), I make her do “pace strides” before we start the workout. After her warm-up, I have her do 100 meters at the goal pace for the workout. It usually takes her 3-4 pace strides before she dials in the pace. At that time, we can then begin the workout. The result is that she’s better at hitting her goal pace after these pace strides.

For longer repeats (like 800 meter to mile repeats), I have her run 1 mile at tempo run pace. This seems to settle her down and then she runs more controlled in the speed workout. Simple yet effective and she’s had big breakthroughs in training and racing since she’s reduced this negative tendency.

Seth the Snacking Machine:

Seth is an age-group runner with the goal for qualifying for Boston. He works really hard but his negative tendency is that he snacks too often and makes poor snacking decisions. He has 10 pounds to lose and attributes it to his poor snacking. So, our new rule is that he can still snack (baby steps) but instead of grabbing the bag of chips or sleeve of cookies. He has to put his serving of the snack into a bowl. By interrupting the “eat the whole bag” tendency, we’re finding he controls the quantity of his snacking. Our next step is to transition to healthier snacks but this negative tendency is really, really strong for Seth. So, I’m taking it slow and know that small victories lead to winning the battle.

Brent (the new Stuart Smalley):

Brent is a driven runner (which is awesome) and very, very hard on himself (which is not). I get the feeling there may be some deeper psychological issues at play, but the manifestation is that he has a lot of negative self-talk. It’s almost like he won’t even allow himself to achieve his goals. He may have a positive workout, but he won’t bask in the glory of that. Instead, he seems to seek out any negative in the workout or himself and talk it up. I’ll be honest, it’s heart-breaking to see someone do that.

With Brent, our action is a list of affirmations that he must read every day. Right now, it’s forced. He’s reading the positive self-statements but doesn’t really believe them. But, having experience with other athletes like Brent, I know that you can “fake it till you make it.” And I’m seeing some cracks in the armor. I’m seeing more positive statements after positive workouts. I’m seeing less negativity. I have my fingers (and toes!) crossed that he’ll be kinder to himself. Psychologists tell us that the brain is very receptive to self-talk so I’m very hopeful that if we keep with it, we can reduce Brent’s negative tendency.






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Written By Greg McMillan
Called “one of the best and smartest distance running coaches in America” by Runner’s World’s Amby Burfoot, Greg McMillan is renowned for his ability to combine the science of endurance performance with the art of real-world coaching. While getting his graduate degree in Exercise Science he created the ever-popular McMillan Running Calculator – called “The Best Running Calculator” by Outside Magazine. A National Champion runner himself, Greg coaches runners from beginners to Boston Qualifiers (15,000+ and counting!) to Olympians.

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