I coach a runner who wants to break 1:30:00 in the half marathon. We’d been working together for about two and a half months when she took her first crack at it. I was 95 percent confident that Jody (not her real name) was fit enough to run under 1:31:00, but only 10 percent confident she was ready to break 1:30:00 this time out. So, I gave her a pacing plan that was conservative enough to ensure she didn’t hit the wall yet aggressive enough to give her a shot at sneaking under 90 minutes if she got to 8 miles feeling great and was able to squeeze down from there.

Instructed to run the first kilometer in 4:20, Jody instead blitzed it in 3:50. That’s 1:20:52 pace! Either a miracle was unfolding or she was self-sabotaging in a big way. Miracles do happen, but not often, and Jody fell apart spectacularly after 10K, limping across the finish line in 1:32:41 after grinding out the final 5K in 23:21 (4:41/km).

Having learned her lesson—or so we thought—Jody ran another half marathon two weeks later. Determined to stick to the plan this time, she did just that—until she saw an official race pacer carrying a 1:30 sign and surrounded by runners who shared her goal. What luck, she thought. I can just follow that guy and run the right pace without even thinking about it.

Problem was, the pacer himself was running too aggressively. He led the group through 5K in 20:55, which would have been just about perfect had the sign he carried read 1:28. As any experienced runner knows, small overshoots in pace can lead to be big catastrophes in the later miles of a longer race. Jody took small comfort in having plenty of company when she fell apart for the second time in three weeks. Although her finish time of 1:31:38 was an improvement, it felt like a step backward, even more disappointing than her previous self-inflicted underperformance.

“I’m so mad at myself,” she told me in our next phone consultation. “I should have ignored everyone else, trusted my watch, and stuck to the pace you gave me no matter what. Right?”

“Not exactly,” I replied. Although I do not doubt that things would have turned out better for Jody had she done as she said, whether they did or not, she would be making the same mistake she made in scrapping her race plan entirely in her first half marathon and in blindly following the pacer in her second, which was failing to exercise self-trust.

I define “self-trust” as justified confidence in one’s ability to make good decisions. The athletes who have the fewest bad races are those who most consistently make good decisions, and the athletes who most consistently make good decisions in races are those who have the highest degree of self-trust.

Hold on a second. Didn’t Jody exercise self-trust by spontaneously scrapping her race plan and sprinting the early kilometers of her first half marathon? The answer is no. True self-trust is metacognitive in nature, meaning it involves two layers of awareness: conscious thought and conscious monitoring of thought. To say that Jody exercised self-trust in sprinting the early kilometers of her first half marathon is akin to saying a dog exercises self-trust in chasing squirrels. Dogs are not capable of making decisions through the metacognitive process of first having a thought, then evaluating it, and finally choosing whether to go with it or override it. Dogs just do. And in her first half marathon, Jody just did.

In her next race, Jody did think, making a conscious decision based on good intentions that happened to be the wrong decision. As I put it to her in our post-race phone consult, if she made a rookie mistake in her first half marathon, she made a more advanced mistake in her second. The reason it was a mistake, though, was that she put too much trust in an external entity (specifically, the pacer) and thereby gave up control of her race.

The thing that I tried to impress on Jody in that call was that, when it comes time to run her next half marathon, putting blind faith in her watch and sticking to a predetermined pace no matter what will also constitute a failure of self-trust. Competing with self-trust means not putting blind faith in anything (including oneself, but we’ll come back to that).

To demonstrate why Jody’s proposed solution of chaining herself to her watch was no solution at all, I will briefly tell you about two half marathons from my own running career. The more recent of the two was the 2015 San Jose Half Marathon, where my goal was to break 1:17:00. Knowing that the required pace was 5:51 per mile, I keyed off my watch and ran the first few miles at precisely this pace. But that pace felt harder than it should have, and instinct told me I needed to back off a bit to avoid a later implosion. Instead, I kept running 5:51’s until I couldn’t, which happened around mile 8. By mile 11 I was walking. Needless to say, I did not meet my goal.

The other example is the 2001 Palm Springs Half Marathon. I came into that race with the same goal—to break 1:17:00—which at that time I had never done before. But on this occasion, the required pace felt easier than expected rather than harder. Instinct told me I could go faster, and I went with it, running not just faster but a lot faster. I stopped the clock at 1:13:31, a personal best by more than four minutes, having averaged 5:36 per mile.

The lesson of these examples is not, “Always trust your instincts.” Self-trust isn’t a matter of going with your gut every time. It’s about putting your faith not in any single input into your decisions but in the very process by which you make decisions—a process that entails taking a mental step back from your feelings, thoughts, perceptions, and circumstances, evaluating your options, and choosing the option that seems best, accepting that you could be wrong.

So, how does an athlete who lacks self-trust develop it? By going through the learning journey Jody is going through. You make mistakes resulting from lack of self-trust, reflect on them, draw lessons, and apply what you’ve learned in the next opportunity. It’s not a one-step process, as Jody’s example demonstrates. But it is doable, and she will do it. You can too.

In any relationship, disagreements are bound to occur. These moments of friction are not limited to differences of opinion, such as whether dogs are better than cats or vice versa, but may also include discrepancies in how reality is perceived. Perhaps you and your spouse disagree on whether aliens walk among us in human disguise, for example.

An athlete’s relationship with his or her training devices is like any other relationship in this regard. There are moments when the information provided to the athlete by a device—or at least the athlete’s interpretation of the information provided—is at odds with the athlete’s own perception of what’s happening. Heart rate data is perhaps the richest source of such dissonance. Raise your hand if the heart rate reading on your device has ever told you that you’re working hard (or easy) while your subjective perception of effort said the opposite? Thought so.

Each conflict of this sort must be resolved in one direction or the other. The athlete must either overrule the device and act on her own perception of reality or acquiesce to the device’s take on reality and obey its dictates. In my experience as a coach, athletes with a high degree of mental fitness almost always overrule their device in these situations, whereas athletes with work to do in their mental game usually acquiesce and obey.

Actually, it’s not just in my experience that this division is seen. A number of studies have shown that higher-performing athletes tend to be a lot more selective in their use of device features and real-time data during workouts and races. In other words, higher-performing athletes exert greater control in their relationship with their fitness devices. You might say that they play the parent role, while their watch is confined to the child role, whereas with less successful athletes the inverse is true.

There are two reasons for this. The first is related to the fact that, in endurance sports, performance limits are determined by perceptions, not by physiology. An athlete who feels he can’t continue at his present effort level is always right, regardless of what any objective measurement says. Because of this, every athlete who has enough experience to know her limits should trust her perceptions more than she trusts her device. But not all athletes are equally self-trusting. Athletes burdened with relatively low levels of self-trust tend to look outside themselves for guidance and assurance, allowing themselves to become subservient to and overdependent on their devices, as was demonstrated in a study led by Pierluigi Diotaitui and published in the journal Psychology in 2020. And that’s the second reason that higher-performing athletes veto their device’s opinion virtually every time in contradicts their own: they are blessed with a high level of innate self-trust.

Recently I came across another interesting paper that sheds light on this topic from a different angle. Written by a four-person team led by Fabian Otte of the Institute of Exercise Training and Sport Informatics, it bears the colossally descriptive title, “When and How to Provide Feedback and Instructions to Athletes?—How Sport Psychology and Pedagogy Insights Can Improve Coaching Interventions to Enhance Self-Regulation in Training.” The argument that Otte and his coauthors make is based on the premise that success in sports is dependent on athletes’ ability to self-regulate their performance, which is something that coaches neither can nor should do on their athletes’ behalf. The coach’s role is not to teach sports skills but to facilitate athletes’ learning of sports skills. Otte and colleagues write, “An increased amount of feedback and instructions (in terms of information quality and quantity) likely is not more beneficial for athletes. In contrast to the common notion, ‘the more, the better,’ athletes at particular skill developmental stages actually benefit more from self-regulatory approaches and minimized explicit feedback and instructions used sparingly.”

For self-coached athletes, fitness devices largely take the place of a coach. But existing products are not designed to inform and instruct athletes in a manner that is consistent with how the most effective coaches do their work. This was noted by the authors of a recent observational study of device usage by runners, who advised manufacturers to start making products that give runners more control, providing “meaningful running-related data presentations at specific moments in time to comply with runners’ needs, wishes and goals, rather than a technology-pushed presentation of specific sets of data.”

In the meantime, it’s on you to assert more control in your relationship with your fitness gadgets. Step one is accepting it as an explicit goal to overrule your device (almost) every time it disagrees with your perceptions. Let your watch know who’s boss!

As a sports nutritionist, I observe the diets of lots of endurance athletes. After more than a decade of doing so, I can say that perhaps the most important pattern I’ve noticed is that athletes whose diet is consistently working for them (i.e., delivering the results they seek) pay relatively little attention to the details of nutrition, whereas athletes who struggle with diet-related barriers to better fitness tend to be hyper-focused on nutritional minutiae. I’m not saying that all athletes who micromanage their diet struggle with such barriers or that all athletes who struggle with such barriers micromanage their diet, but the pattern I speak of is clear and pervasive. Why?

I believe that excessive attention to detail thwarts the very thing it is meant to promote—consistent healthy eating—in two ways, one practical and the other psychological.

The practical issue is that, for the most part, it is not necessary pay attention to the details of nutrition to maintain a healthy diet that supports the pursuit of fitness goals. If your personal dietary philosophy is nothing more than a general effort to eat a balance of mostly unprocessed foods of all types in the amounts your body wants (versus those your head may desire), you will almost certainly get the results you seek from your diet. There is simply no need to know (for example) how much folic acid you require or even what folic acid is to get enough folic acid if you eat according to this basic principle. With few exceptions, such details will take care of themselves.

The extreme alternative to this top-down approach to diet is what we might call radical reductionism, which entails figuring out how much of every nutrient you need and building from the bottom up a diet that delivers the right amounts of everything. Not only is this approach wildly impractical and unnecessary, but it’s also more likely to result in nutritional error because in focusing individually on each nutrient in isolation, you are continually not focusing on everything else. It’s like juggling six balls by trying to look at each ball in turn—doesn’t work. As any juggler will tell you, the way to juggle six balls is to focus not on balls but on juggling.

I don’t think anyone has ever really attempted to practice radical dietary reductionism, but plenty of athletes practice a moderate version of it that has similar consequences. I once coached a recovering vegan who wanted to add more protein to her diet—easy enough in principle, but she had the hardest time actually doing it because she couldn’t resist trying to quantify the cascading effects of adding specific protein-rich foods to her diet. On the one hand, if she simply supplemented her existing diet with such foods, she would be eating too many calories. On the other hand, if she replaced one or more low-protein foods in her current diet with high-protein alternatives, she would lose all the nutrients in the food she replaced. The poor lady was almost paralyzed by such overthinking.

Which brings us to the second, psychological, reason excessive attention to detail is the enemy of healthy eating. Why do some people, like this recovering vegan athlete, obsess over nutritional minutiae while others, for whom health and fitness are no less important, do not? The answer, I believe, has to do with self-trust. Like all personality traits, self-trust exists on a spectrum in the human population. People with a high level of self-trust feel that they can rely on themselves to make good decisions for themselves, while those with a low level of self-trust tend to doubt their instincts when making decisions.

When self-trusting individuals pursue a goal such as getting fitter, they stay focused on the big picture, rigorously filtering the relevant information sources they are exposed to. Their attitude is this: ‘I know what I’m doing and what I’m doing is basically working, so I’m not going to let myself get pulled in a new direction unless something really leaps out at me.’ Psychologists refer to this mental stance as psychological distance, and it’s something that individuals who lack self-trust struggle to maintain. Never fully confident that what they are doing is right or working, they constantly sift the sand for The Answer, hoping in a sense that they can make up for the lack of a philosophy with an accumulation of knowledge.

Now, you might be asking, ‘How can too much knowledge ever really be a problem when it comes to diet and the pursuit of health and fitness?’ That’s a very good question, and the answer is that it’s not really knowledge per se that’s problematic but rather the basic orientation toward habit building and habit maintenance that leads some people to keep searching and searching for a better answer instead of choosing a course and staying with it, thereafter making only small corrections based on new information that distinguishes itself from the usual noise.

What I see over and over again in athletes who lack self-trust is that they are erratic in their eating habits. One week they’re convinced they need to eat more fat because of something they heard on a podcast, the next week convinced they need to eat less fat because of something a training partner said on a group bike ride. Lacking the wherewithal to keep a firm hold on the wheel of their destiny, they seldom stick with anything long enough to determine whether it actually works for them, nor do they have much confidence in their ability to determine what works for them anyway.

I find such athletes are very difficult to help. Convinced that they just haven’t found what works, I don’t know how to tell them they have already repeatedly rejected what works (eating a balance of mostly unprocessed foods of all types in the amounts the body wants) in multiple ways. The true way out for such folks is not more information but a serious effort to develop the self-trust that I see in almost all of the fortunate athletes who are consistently happy with the results they’re getting from their diet.

I’m no psychologist, though, so here’s a referral to an authoritative resource on cultivating self-trust:

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