Positive Psychology, Running

Making you work for you!

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“Making you work for you” may sound like a weird statement, I mean, why wouldn’t you work for you? If you think about it, how many times have you been totally sure of your ability to do something – whether it be scoring goals in a football match or running that 10 miler – but instead of just getting up and doing it, you feel dread? This is what I mean by ‘making you work for you’ because your own body can send irrational and sometimes debilitating signals to your brain which can effect how you perform!

What your feeling is arousal; taking on a challenge, especially if it is important to you, results in a flood of hormones involved in the flight/fight response. Unfortunately, arousal is perceived by the brain as a signal for stress and if you are unsure of the best way to respond to these signals in order to facilitate optimal performance, you might hinder yourself.

Individual Zones of Optimal Functioning (IZOF) is a theory which argues that there are different levels of optimal arousal to which individuals respond with peak performance. In other words, while one person may react positively to a high arousal state and respond to a task with peak performance, someone else may become disorientated or lose steam too quickly.

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Your optimal zone is something you have to find out on your own during training and obviously depends on the type of challenge you are taking on – if you’re about to sprint 200 metres to a finish line, buckets of adrenaline will probably help you get there faster. Though, if you’re planning on running a marathon, being too aroused may cause you to lose energy too quickly.

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Humara (1999) suggests trait anxiety should also be considered when thinking about the effect of arousal. Having trait anxiety refers to a tendency to relate arousal to negative emotions such as fear across many situations, while state anxiety simply refers to the unpleasant feelings associated with a specific event (nerves). Humara argues that – in sport – those low in trait anxiety find state anxiety to coincide with peak performance and thus would have high IZOF, whereas people who are high in trait anxiety may find that state anxiety is detrimental to their performance (low IZOF). Further, it has been suggested that too much arousal in those without the tools to adequately deal with the signals, may result in avoidance coping, where the person avoids the task completely.



How can you get you to work for you?
If you know what your IZOF is, you should be able to deduce whether you need to increase or decrease your levels of arousal to get to your optimal level.

Calm down!
I don’t know about you, but the thought of running 16 miles scares the **** out of me, but I did it anyway. I was stressing about my long run for a few days and so I decided to employ some positive psychological techniques to help a girl out. Masters and Ogles (1998) in their review of research, advocate disassociation as a cognitive strategy for directing attention away from uncomfortable physiological signals. They suggest that focusing on external aspects unrelated to the task can increase performance. So, naturally I bought new shoes…
My logic was that if I had new trainers, I would want to run in order to ‘try them out,’ thus, focusing my attention away from the running aspect and more on critiquing my new pretty Asics shoes aspect (I mean I needed new trainers anyway…). It worked!
I also find that if i tell myself that I am not running to run, but to explore as a dissociation technique, that works too and I employed that on my 16 miler also!

photos from my day ‘exploring’ Bethesda!

Get Pumped!
Whether you’re aiming for a PB in park run or are nearing the end of a long run and need a boost in arousal to facilitate a strong performance, I strongly advocate music. Using music pre-run has has shown to increase arousal and get you to your IZOF.

However, I want to share with you something I learned whilst researching for my dissertation and have since put to the test; in a paper by Edworthy and Waring (2006), it is reported that a significant increase in performance is seen when music tempo is increased from slow to fast, much more than simply listening to fast tempo music. Since becoming privy to this information, I have started my runs with no music and when I become tired and demotivated, I put my earphones in and press play on a playlist I have put together myself; it starts with Halo by Beyonce and ends with Lucky Strike by Maroon 5 (slow to fast). My enjoyment as well as my performance whilst running has improved so much, thus emphasising how easy it is to manipulate your own physiology!

To sum up:

  • Get to know yourself. At what level of arousal do you perform best?
  • If you get stressed out easily across situations, opt for a calming strategy
    – distract yourself with external information
    – make the task enjoyable
  • If you simply get nerves before an event, run with it! (pun intended)
  • Music for getting pumped and for resurrecting you when you’re tired


See you at the finish line!


Positive Psychology, Running

Motivating Healthy Behaviour Change: Easter Edition

Motivating Healthy Behaviour Change: Easter Edition


I am writing this for those of you who, like me, found themselves stuffing their face with
chocolate and other treats this past bank holiday. It is after the more indulgent holidays that most people find that they are unhappy with their current situation. Whether this is due to health, general fitness or an image people have of their ideal selves, a sudden motivation to change old habits and make new better ones arises.

The new year sees a third of Britons make new year’s resolutions ever year, yet most people struggle to make the initial steps towards change and thus, a value-action, intention-behaviour gap develops; that is, there is a disparity between the high value placed on things such as weight loss, being fit etc. and the low level of action people take to achieve them.

Obviously, the diet and exercise industry doesn’t make billions annually by telling people what they ACTUALLY need to do to change. How often have you heard the sentence “you just need to exercise and eat healthily”? Although, this statement is mostly correct, there is so much more to it. What makes this even worse is the amount of contradictions on what is considered to be healthy. This lack of information has resulted in a mass of ‘Yo-yo dieters’ who struggle to keep up the changes they make, because no one tells you how to!

Research informs us of a myriad of reasons why we can’t stick to change, as well as the steps we need to take to fill the gap between intentions and behaviour. Therefore, I am going to share with you what I have learned during my studies that I have found to work, especially when it comes to getting off the sofa.

The theory of reasoned action proposes that that your behaviours are not only dependent on your own attitude but also on the social norms as defined within your social group. In other words, it makes it harder to change if your social activities are heavily built upon unhealthy behaviours such as drinking or smoking and the attitudes of those within your group are not supportive of change.

That does not mean to say that you need to get all new friends. A simple, yet effective change may just be joining a group or institution that values and is organised around facilitating the change that you want. A good example is AA (Alcoholics Anonymous); this organisation has been shown to successfully help masses of people struggling to give up alcohol and research has assigned a lot of its success to time spent with “individuals who support efforts towards sobriety.” I find this to be especially true in regards to my own transition. I do not believe that I could have continued to run, nor complete two half marathons by now without the support and motivation from my own #PsychRunners group.

Ruthin 10k group post run.jpg
Credit: Matthew Woodard
  • Don’t force it.

You don’t need to be a psychologist to know this one. At some point in life, you have been told you cannot have or cannot do something. It no longer matters if you even wanted to in the first place, but there is a sudden urge to attain what you have now been told is unattainable. The same is true if you tell yourself you cannot have something, or that you HAVE TO do something, like “you cannot have that piece of cake,” or “you have to go on a run today.” Reactance theory proposes that in telling yourself you have to or can’t do something, your freedom comes under threat and as such, you may perform the exact behaviour you have forbid in an attempt to regain that freedom.

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I propose another way! ‘Nudge’ theory by Thaler and Sunstein offers an alternate to often unsuccessful methods of behaviour change; instead of forbidding choice, provide yourself with options. So, instead of telling yourself you cannot have that piece of cake, present yourself with healthier alternative that you might also find satisfying. In the same way, instead of telling myself that I must run today, I find it much more motivating to ask myself what route I would like to take.


To sum up: change is not simply about deciding that you want to, nor is it a simple case of making healthy choices and exercising.

  • Distance yourself from those who may hinder your personal development or at least make connections where your goals are supported.
  • Do not force change, give yourself options!


See you at the finish line!

Positive Psychology, Running

Star Wars Quotes and Life Hacks

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Do, or do not. There is no try… Yes, that is a Star Wars quote.

As I suspected, Yoda’s wisdom knows no bounds… because, although directed toward dismantling the Galactic Empire, this statement is also highly relevant to running and quite frankly, life in general.
Saying “I will try to…” is something that everyone does. It is a scapegoat phrase; we use it when we know we won’t actually do the thing we say we are going to try to do… but “at least we tried” right?


Students probably do this more than the average human – “I know I’m going out tonight, but I am definitely going to try to make my 9am lecture” or “I know I’ve been surviving on pasta, crisps and coffee, but I’m going to try to be healthy this week.” It just doesn’t happen.


The reason for failure may not be caused by a lack of trying, nor even a lack of wanting to succeed; the reason lies within the phrase’s psychological implications. “I will try” not only makes failure an option but almost gives you permission to fail (so you don’t push yourself).

In my last blog post I spoke about how beliefs of self can determine the outcomes of your endeavours because they dictate how we feel about and respond to experiences. The words “I will” provide undertones of confidence and conviction, whereas “I will try” implies self-doubt.
Research focusing on the Theory of Planned Behaviour provides evidence for the importance of intentions in success. It found that intentions (i.e. “I will try to lose weight Vs. “I am determined to lose weight”) strongly correlated with perceived control (belief in your own capability) as well as attitude, as well as correlating significantly with success.

SO, if you simply try, you are more likely to give up at the first hurdle or change of circumstance and research supports this. I also spoke briefly about changing beliefs through honest evaluation of successes and perseverance, however, there is a shortcut…

Life Hack: Self-Talk Edition

Self-talk is something we all do; it is a kind of inner monologue which evaluates what you do as you’re doing it. It is not dissimilar to the commentary that accompanies any sports game on TV, only instead, you’re both the subject and the commentator.

Negative self-talk can really damage a person. Like most bad habits, negative self-talk is

Obtained from

something which develops in childhood; if you grow up hearing “no” and “you can’t” regularly, the themes become internalised and negative talk becomes automatic.
I had never been good at endurance sports growing up, and this had been re-affirmed by PE teachers and family; thus, when I initially tried to run long-distance, when I came to a hurdle, I thought “this makes sense, I am as bad at this as I have always been.” Instead, I should have told myself (like I do now) that I am capable of pushing through, if not this time then the next.


Positive self-talk occurs when you mentally affirm something good about yourself or what you have done, for example, “I am good at this,” or “I’m not 100% now but I will get better.” People do this are often their own internal cheerleaders and tend to be optimistic about their outcomes. Positive self-talk is thought to make you more confident, like yourself more and increase your success! I know us Brits are the self-proclaimed best at being self-deprecating – its our culture… but, if you are struggling with your self-image, you may want to develop new habits.

The handy thing is (get ready for an amaze-balls life-hack) you can train your mind to replace negative commentary with positive affirmations and this can drastically improve life quality and outcomes! But keep at it… it takes practice.
Research has even applied this notion to endurance sports. Evidence suggests that motivational (“I can do this”) self-talk, alongside instructional (“Get to the finish-line”) self-talk significantly improves performance in endurance sports such as long-distance running!
A myriad of research has demonstrated that the positive effects of positive self-talk are applicable to a variety of situations. For example this paper shows that darts players who use positive self-talk are significantly better than those who are negative.

i can do this

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This blog has been the one which has resonated with me the most. I feel self-talk has been the main source of my running success thus far.
I felt this was particularly true during the Anglesey half marathon; the weather was a strong wind away from being the worst conditions I could have possibly imagined and i seriously struggled with the cold and the rain. I kept telling myself that I liked the rain and after a while I actually enjoyed running in it. Even when I was sore and my brain could no longer hold a positive thought, I ignored the negative and instead focused on instructional self-talk – “I will get to the finish line.”

In short;

  • Do not try. DO.
  • Telling yourself you will TRY something, allows for failure
  • Telling yourself you WILL inspires conviction
  • Believe in yourself and you will achieve
  • Positive self-talk will help you believe in yourself
  • Positive self-talk can be learned!

See you at the finish line!







Positive Psychology, Running

Pain Before Pleasure!


Last Sunday, along with my amazing ‘Born To Run’ comrades, I completed my first half marathon in Anglesey! In the days that followed I heard “I knew you could do it” and “You should never doubt yourself” more times than I could count… The funny thing is, in the run up to the race – pun intended – not once did I doubt that I would finish, better still, I knew I would finish in good time (which I did). I realised that at some point my belief in my abilities and even my view of running had changed.

Maslow theorised that every human is capable of self-actualisation (to realise one’s potential and find meaning). The theory reasoned that in order to reach the highest level of person-hood, you first need to satisfy physiological, safety, love and esteem needs. However, many people give up these ‘needs’ for the purpose of succeeding and finding meaning. One awesome example of this is Sean Conway, who, in 2012 sold his business for £1 and neglected his physiological, safety and love needs – all at once –  to cycle around the world; he even cycled the last 12,000 miles with a fractured spine after being hit by a car, all the while knowing he had already lost the record!

Obtained from—cycling-the-world.html

I’m obviously not comparing my own journey with that of Conway’s, if i get hit by a car during training, I’m taking up swimming… His story is just an extreme example of what happens what you achieve congruence. Carl Rogers argued that in order to self-actualise, one’s “self-concept” must be congruent with the “ideal-self.” Simply put, your actions and the way you envision yourself must be in-line with the version of yourself that you had hoped to be; Sean Conway pictured himself as someone who would cycle the globe and so he did.

In this way, your self-concept is vital for influencing or even determining the outcomes of the goals you set yourself. Positive psychologists maintain that you are what you believe; our beliefs determine our attitudes, which in-turn dictate how we feel about and respond to experiences and thus directs behaviour. In other words, if you consider yourself to be high achieving, you are more likely to approach tasks and activities in general with confidence and thus more likely to put your full effort forward. Conversely, the opposite would hold true if you viewed yourself as a low achieving individual. Luckily, our self-concept isn’t written in stone, it is susceptible to change through honest evaluation of your strengths and perseverance.

At the beginning of my training I did not see myself as a runner. I had tried to run frequently in the past and had failed again and again to enjoy it and I assumed this lack of enjoyment to be my downfall. Even as I continued to meet my goals in training, set-backs would feed my negativity and weaken my enjoyment of it. I think for me, the turning point was on completion of the Ruthin 10k – I had experienced a number of set-backs the week before (a persistent cough being my main enemy) which affected my confidence and yet I powered through it! My “self-concept” became less in-congruent with my “ideal-self” (I felt more like the runner I wanted to be), I realised that determination counts for a lot and you don’t have to enjoy something consistently to be good at it.

Ruthin 10k post run medals
Credit: Matthew Woodard

Interestingly, research has shown that happiness without direction does to the same to the body as adversity and so it is more beneficial to be someone who has meaning or purpose in mind (with or without happiness). In my case, the direction is obviously the Liverpool marathon in May!

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Direction and set-backs also (ironically) seem to work as a team to contribute towards success! Each failure is lesson and these lessons teach us to adapt and improve strategies. I recall one training session with my running group where I forgot to turn on my fitbit and thus could not track my pace (first mistake), I then preceded to run with with someone I knew to be faster than myself (second mistake). Once I had realised that I was exhausting faster than I usually would, instead of slowing down, I continued to try to run with my friend (the killer mistake). Long-story-short, I was the last runner back and I turned up with swollen hands and a sore ego. I was able to apply my lessons learned to the Anglesey half marathon… I had my fitbit ready and ran at a pace I was comfortable with –  even it meant running alone for most of it. The initial failure turned to achievement when I realised it was once of the best runs I’d ever done!


Failures are also thought to form the basis of resilience. If you achieve after responding to a failure as a learning opportunity, it teaches you that failure it not something to fear but rather an opportunity for mastery. Recent research has shown that when a task is framed as a challenge, rather than a threat, failures increase performance.

To sum up:

  • If you direct your behaviour towards becoming your “ideal-self,” you do in fact come closer to being that person!
  • In this way, you are what you believe yourself to be
  • You can change how you see yourself through perseversence and acknowledging your successes
  • Achievement of your goals will follow!
  • Your skill may develop before your passion, and thats ok…
  • Acceptance: allow your failures to teach you lessons and to build you into a stronger and more confident human

See you at the finish line!

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Positive Psychology, Running



I ran 8 miles on Sunday. I was sore, sick, cold and (as stereotypical as it may sound coming from a girl) concerned for the well-being of my hair. This was not new; I have yet to experience a period of optimal health and am beginning to forget what it is like to have simultaneously working nostrils. You may then ask, how it is I have kept up the motivation to keep going?

Having an end goal is important and naturally, the knowledge that in 2 months I am going to be running 26.2 miles is a motivator but that is not what gets me out of the door during storm Doris with a bad head cold.

Incentives for action (or lack of)…

laterIt is well known, especially in the case of new year’s resolutions, that people often fail to achieve or give up on their goals. Lock and Latham (1985) (among others) have revealed that goals which are easy or vague (e.g “I will lose weight” or “I will run today”) are not motivating and so people do not persist in their efforts to achieve them. Furthermore, goals which are set in the future tend to be pushed aside for future versions of yourself to worry about, especially in the presence of other more pressing goals such as work or school deadlines.

This does not mean though, that goals set in the future are unattainable.


It pays to be SMART 

Research on goal setting has revealed that there are “ideal goals,” ones which are made with the acronym SMART in mind. My own SMART goals have formed my training plan and have become what I attribute most of my running success to.

  • Specific – instead of “I will run” my plan specifies on what days and how many I will run as well as how far. Specific goals are important because you have to opportunity to challenge yourself; a myriad of evidence leaves little argument that (if accepted) specific goals lead to higher levels of performance than “do your best goals” no matter what the activity. Physiologically speaking, your body is capable of going further and harder than your mind would have you believe. Having a specific goal helps to cut out the middle man (the mind) and so when motivation begins to waver, you’re more likely to push on.
  • Measurable – quantify your behaviour so you have an indicator of progress, for example I specify how many miles I am to run on my long run each week (this week was 8, next week is 10). Making sure your goals are measurable also ensures your progress is too!
  • Attainable – making sure your sub-goals are attainable are vital to your perseverance, research has shown that a goal that is too hard may result in failure and may therefore be demotivating and one that is too easy will fail to motivate (Bandura, 1977).
  • Relevant – making sure a sub-goal or task contributes to your end goal.
  • Time-bound – specify when a goal should be achieved.                                                  Making Sunday my ‘long-run’ day and specifying how many miles I am to run on that day means I don’t fall behind in my training (the goals are more short-term and so cannot be dismissed as easily as a future goal). Psychologists (Bandura & Simon, 1977) have found short-term sub-goals to be instrumental in achieving future goals; this is because they mobilise effort and directs one’s behaviours.

Goal setting in this way is thought to give you a sense of control in a sort of “I run my day, my day doesn’t run me” kind of way (no pun intended). Furthermore, SMART goals provide you with opportunities for evaluation – either eliciting feelings of accomplishment on completion or allowing for negative appraisal. These self-regulatory strategies form the basis of resilience as they allow you to adapt to unsuccessful strategies using failures as feedback rather than internalising them as faults (theoretically of course, but I have found this to be true).

This in essence is what positive psychology is all about…using effective intervention to aid in the acquisition of a positive outlook and to rid one’s self of a hopeless mindset – Martin Seligman. The power of one’s mindset is made especially apparent when a comparison is drawn between those who are optimistic and those who are pessimists. A team from the University of Paris gave negative feedback to 62 young

The Science of Positive Thinking by Neil F. Neimark.

basketball players after a dribbling trial who were then asked to partake in a second. In the second trial, players who had been highlighted as having an optimistic mind-set had lower levels of anxiety, were more confidence and thus played better than those highlighted as pessimistic.

Fail again, Fail better



  • When striving towards a goal, ensure it means something to you and that it isn’t easy!
  • Provide yourself with sub-goals which encompass the SMART criteria to ensure you are able to assess your progress (self-regulation requires goals, against which one can evaluate their performance).
  • Don’t be your best, be specific! And ALWAYS optimistic.


See you at the finish line.




Positive Psychology, Running

I run now. I am a runner.

This tomato is me after a run. I run now. I am a runner.

It is, apparently, important to tell yourself that you are already what you aspire to be when striving for a particular goal [1]. I tell you this because I am currently taking a module on positive psychology in which you are required to apply its principles and theories to achieving something; possibly (and most definitely in my case) something you never believed you could achieve before. On the 28th of May, I along with my peers and lecturers will run the 26.2 miles of the Liverpool Rock and Roll Marathon! So, for all intents and purposes – I am a runner.

Sound challenging? Good. It turns out that people perform better when confronted with a challenging goal than one that is easy (bear with me on this one). In reviewing a myriad of goal setting research, Locke found that motivation to achieve a goal is related to subsequent feelings of accomplishment [2]; in other words, challenging goals are seen as more rewarding and worthwhile, which means you work harder to achieve them. Looking back over the passed few years as an aspiring runner who always seemed to lose motivation, I cannot help but agree with Locke. I realise now that it was not that I couldn’t do it, I had no direction or sense of purpose – I was simply running.

Goals are often neglected when there is no specific plan in place to encourage goal-directed behaviours [3] and i must admit, had my lecturers sat us down in the first seminar and simply thrown the marathon at us, I would have curled into the foetal position in search of my happy place never to be seen again. Instead (and to my great relief), they encouraged us to create a plan which would break the mammoth task down into smaller, more achievable goals. On a calendar I am to assign a specific time or mileage to run each day that I intend to do so and each week this time or mileage increases slightly, until the mileage is marathon worthy. These plans can also be referred to as implementation intentions and are ways to link a future goal with specific goal-directed behaviours (“when a specified time for running arises, I will run the specified distance”). Empirical support for the success of implementation intentions for achieving goals are strong [4], especially when considering physical exercise [5].

I currently feel as if I am a case study in my own masochistic, yet fulfilling experiment as I find myself reviewing literature alongside my own experiences. So far, I am not an anomaly; the gravity of the challenge excites me and I am running more frequently and further than I have ever been able to (4.5 miles this week)! My own implementation intentions have made the marathon a more attainable goal, whilst telling myself that I am a runner does make me feel like one as well as instilling in me a confidence that I can tackle each step of the process.

Over the upcoming months I will continue to put these theories to the test and look forward to using positive psychology in overcoming the dreaded wall!

See you at the finish line.


Snyder, C. R. (1994). The psychology of hope: You can get there from here. New York: Free Press.

Locke, E. A., Shaw, K. N., Saari, L. M., & Latham, G. P. (1981). Goal setting and task performance: 1969-1980. Psychological Bulletin, 90(1), 125-152. doi:10.1037//0033-2909.90.1.125

Sheeran, P., Webb, T. L., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (2005). The interplay between goal intentions and implementation intentions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31(1), 87-98. doi:10.1177/0146167204271308

Gollwitzer, P. M. (1999). Implementation intentions: Strong effects of simple plans. American Psychologist, 54(7), 493-503. doi:10.1037//0003-066x.54.7.493

Luszczynska, A., Sobczyk, A., & Abraham, C. (2007). Planning to lose weight: Randomized controlled trial of an implementation intention prompt to enhance weight reduction among overweight and obese women. Health Psychology, 26(4), 507-512. doi:10.1037/0278-6133.26.4.507