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How Much Does Your Athletic Identity Define You?

Athletic identity and self-worth

As an athlete you are always striving to achieve something more, whether it is a race target, a new personal best or a certain standard. You can put so much energy into achieving that one thing that your focus can sometimes narrow so much that you feel like you must achieve it, or you will have failed. 

This will likely start to impact your self-worth resulting in your sense of self coming from whether you ran a personal best, ticked off those training miles, finished that race. You may start to worry about being judged or measured (and falling short) by others based on these things. You may feel like you are starting to lose ‘you’. Being so dependent on external validation through your running achievements can prevent the full ‘you’ from shining out and can restrict your space for personal growth, as well the opportunity to be happy and enjoy your running journey.

What is identity?

Identity refers to how we view ourselves or how we think others view us. It is defined by a set of characteristics, qualities, and values that we hold. You may think that identity forms through the roles you assume, or the things you achieve. But identity is shaped by so much more than this.  

How much does your athletic identity define you?

Running provides a lot of positive benefits for many people. It can provide a source of recognition, belonging, self-esteem and self-confidence. Some may say it has given them an identity that they were struggling to find before. But how much do you let your running define who you are? 

When can it become a problem?

As a runner, it is likely that role makes up a good part of your identity. That is not a bad thing. The risk is when you place so much value on your running that you start to let your running identity merge with your self-worth. 

It is important not to ‘place all your eggs in one basket’ and ensure you tend to other areas of your life that you value. You can still set big goals and strive to achieve these but finding balance ensures that if running isn’t going so well, you know you will be just fine because you have other areas in your life that are equally as important. 

Not placing so much value on running puts you in a much better place to manage adversity and handle the disappointments and set-backs that every athlete experiences at some point. The problem with letting your athletic identity define who you are is when you fall short of your goals you will often feel it is an evaluation of your worth. This results in managing the inevitable lows of racing, and potentially running injuries, being very difficult. Possibly leading to a fear of racing, a loss of love for running or even leaving the sport all together.

Injuries are difficult whatever the circumstance but if your personal identity is heavily tied up to your ‘running identity’, then it can seem catastrophic when you are not able to run. 

For some, not being able to run might lead to questioning their value, making them feel less worthy or even worthless. A loss of identity can lead to increased anxiety, reduced self-confidence, isolation, low self-esteem, or depression. All of which impacts your ability to connect with other people. While it will undoubtedly take time, there are lots of ways to start regaining and even redefining your sense of who you are.

Re-discovering your identity

The most important relationship you will ever have is the one you have with yourself. Your mental health and wellbeing will be influenced by how you feel about you. Take the opportunity to explore who you are, and what has made you into you. Think about your unique qualities and attributes, and don’t rely on the external validation from others based on your running performance. 

This will help you let go of any labels that you have been hanging on to. Terminate any quest for external validation from others and find your ‘true identity’. This does not mean that running won’t form part of your identity and running will still provide you with a great sense of fulfilment, pride, and generate recognition, but you are so much more than your running. 

Don’t let running define you. It is important to have a multitude of different elements to your identity that give you that sense of who you are. This ensures that when running isn’t going so well, you have other aspects of your identity to draw upon that give you a sense of self worth. You may even find that you feel even better about your running and hopefully feel a lot happier.


Reach out to friends

Relationships are so important in helping to reflect to us who we are. Reconnecting with people from other areas of your life, perhaps childhood friends, or colleagues can provide a good reflection. They will have seen inherent value you in you before they saw your athletic achievements. Connecting with them can help to remind you that in addition to your ‘running identity’ you also have other great strengths and values, whether that be a loyal friend, a great sense of humour or good company. They see you for ‘you’ not for your athletic achievements and that can be a powerful influence. 

Increase your range of hobbies and interests

This doesn’t mean giving up running because it will likely still be an important part of who you are, but the key is to not over-invest in it to the detriment of other areas of your life. 

These other areas are important because you can find meaning and purpose in these too, which means it wont feel so catastrophic when you are injured or need a break from it. Engaging in new or different activities will help you to find balance in your life, introduce you to new people or strengthen existing relationships and help you develop purpose through other sources. This will help you to expand the way in which you see yourself and define your identity. 

Identify your core values

Think about what was important to you before running became such a big part of your life and your identity. Have some of your values become side lined because running has taken over? What are these values? 

Values are what guides our behaviour and the way in which we live our lives and define ourselves. Did you use to place more value on friends, family, adventure, connecting with others, or travel? Consider what values might have become side lined and think about how you could change small things to realign yourself with these values again. 

Talk to others

In a world dominated by kudos, likes and shares maybe invest some of that time on your phone to call your friend or message a family member. There are positive aspects of social media – we all love some recognition for our achievements, and having our efforts acknowledged can provide a boost, but it is temporary and probably hollow happiness. Running and sport provides access to some of the best communities, but it is important not to lose touch with the individuals and groups that recognise other aspects of your character.

Final words

No matter what you do in the future – whether your dreams stay the same or if you realise new ones – never stop believing in yourself, set your own goals, and don’t be afraid to change them. Always remember, there is so much more to you than your running.


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