Running free: getting the monkey off your back

Published 21st June 2021 by mymo

Many runners can be their own worst enemy when it comes to self-belief (or lack of it) and we can often be guilty of downplaying achievements or expectations. 

Running is a publicly measured activity and that can often play to our insecurities. Be honest with yourself, how much of your running is held back by your head? Luckily for us, sport psychology is no longer reserved for elite runners, and we are having - and hearing - more conversations about athlete mindset than ever before.

What’s holding you back?

Often it can be something as simple as lack of belief. You might always do what you’ve always done, and not believe you’re capable of anything else. Comparison is also often a problem as you struggle to see your own achievements for what they are and measure them against others instead. We can often find in running that a bad experience can cause negative emotions, such as having a bad race experience and never feeling you can return to that event or distance. All of these things can be a factor in creating negative beliefs about yourself - the ‘monkey on your back.’ 

Is this the inner chimp talking?

There has been a lot written about the ‘chimp’ and ‘computer’ brains, in particular by Steve Peters in his book The Chimp Paradox. The ‘chimp’ is the part of your brain that often reacts emotionally, quickly, and sometimes is the downfall to progress. The chimp is lazy. It’s not just in running either. World Champion snooker player Ronnie O’Sullivan has spoken at length about the work he has done with Peters to ignore the chimp and look instead into his back ups of his ‘human’ rational brain to step away from the emotions and frustrations he often felt were affecting his game. It’s worth noting that O’Sullivan is also a superb runner. Learning to recognise what is ‘real’ and what is a reaction are very different, and both require different responses. 

How can I get out of the rut?

Firstly, identify it! Look for what is really holding you back. Is it mindset, negative thought, emotional regulation - or lack of it? Are you comparing yourself to someone else, to your previous self? Identify your ‘monkey’ and accept it for now. You don’t have to carry it forever! Speak to others and perhaps get the advice of coaches or sports psychologists if you think it’s something that’s really affecting your life as well as your running. 

There are some great books about mindset and running, including The Brave Athlete by Dr Simon Marshall who writes at length with practical examples about the struggles athletes encounter as well as how to get over them. There’s a whole chapter in Running in the Midpack about the psychology of the midpack runner that is worth a look too. 

Be practical and reward your progress. Notice the things that add to the feeling of being held back and the things that make you feel more free. 

Running free is as good as it sounds, as soon as you have shed the monkey you might run faster, further or happier. 

There are some cool sports psychologists on Twitter who often share super practical advice and blogs. Check out two of our favourites Dr Josie Perry and Prof Andy Lane.

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