Anxiety with Running

Here is an interesting inquiry from an athlete on anxiety and running:
Coach Dean – I feel like I get mental after running but I guess it is physical. I did 6 on Saturday and started shaking afterward and thought I was going to pass out. Not sure what is wrong with me. I feel completely fine during the run, but then after its like I work myself up to thinking I can’t do it. I thought it was vitamins or what it is to be honest it might just be in my head and I am completely fine. I just start shaking and need to sit for 20 minutes afterward. I am beginning to believe it is massive anxiety, am I the only one? It makes me nervous to run more than an hour! Even though I have done it in the past and have been fine. After 15 minutes I am fine; feeling like this makes me nervous to run; I actually hate it. Any advice you can give would be great..thank you.

The situation that you describe is uncommon but you aren’t alone either. I have had other runners who hit certain points in races and workouts and they just stop – their heads get the best of them.

First and foremost, you have to be real sure there ISN’T a physical reason for this phenomenon. Blood sugars could be low after running those 6 miles which can contribute to weird body sensations. That can trigger our minds to stress – panic. Since these feelings didn’t occur DURING the run; if you stopped quickly or were dehydrated, blood flow to your head might drop as well as your blood pressure. This can produce light-headedness and of course that can generate all kinds of wayward thoughts. So, check out nutrition, hydration, blood pressure, and maybe get a stress test even (heart related implications).

But, indeed your insights might be right on – that this might be a mental thing not physical. It is still difficult to say definitively that it is a mind thing so first be sure to rule out physical.

Now, assuming it is a mind thing I’ll start with a caveat: “mind” stuff can be challenging to overcome and requires time, effort and patience – just as the physical aspects of training do.

Awareness is always first. If we can’t figure out what starts it we can’t stop it.

Become aware of antecedents to the feelings. What are you thoughts – VERY specifically? Is it worry of dying out on a run? Failing? Physical fatigue? Throwing up? Looking bad? Not being able to handle pain/discomfort? What are you telling yourself.. what is your self-talk? Is it related to the HM and the fact that you haven’t run that far before (the unknown is always a concern)? Start journaling these or at least noting these things. Is there a physical feeling that starts the mind to think this way? Is it that you are pushing too far too soon and you really are going beyond CURRENT limits?

There are many approaches depending on these answers but the point will be to terminate that thought pattern. So, experiment with stopping your run as soon as you get that thought; taking a deep breath; clearing your mind. Then introducing a countering self-talk comment (i.e. if your head is saying “OMG I have never gone this far it’ll hurt too much i better turn around.” You counter it with something like “I can do this; I have trained consistently and have progressively built my endurance; if I need to get myself together for a moment i can do that; then i can continue with my run; this is a good run.”) If it is a physical sensation (fuzzy headed) that seems to precede the panic then begin by stopping before these sensations begin – don’t wait until it’s upon you.

Now, part of this could be confidence in your conditioning. In which case be sure you are following a tailored progressive running program and not something someone handed to you. If you don’t work with a coach it is very difficult to get that feedback that could make adjustments to workouts to enhance both conditioning and confidence.

Other possible approaches:
Run with others and get your mind OFF the running.
Run with music and get your mind OFF the running.
Run without a watch (get over that hour thing….)
Run without a GPS (get over that distance thing…)
Run on a treadmill. You can step off anytime. Then continue. Break up the run. It does NOT have to be continuous to get you to where you want to be.

Even out on the roads STOP purposely in smaller intervals – get fluids and whatever – take a breath, look around, RELAX. There is no pressure to HAVE to run another step at any given pace; but then continue. The idea here is to break up a run into smaller bite sizes. This will also allow for some introspection on any physical/mental issues BEFORE they just appear. In fact you may just be able to keep them at bay this way.

One other approach, as I eluded to above, break your long run up into VERY different runs. Run “x” amount with one runner; get back, drink, relax – whatever. Then maybe 30 minutes later go on a separate run preferably with another runner.

See a pattern here? Experiment with things that get you away from that barrier you have built up in your mind.

Two more things I’ll suggest. Really examine your purpose for running the HM. Purpose gives us power but if it is unrealistic it may put pressure on you subconsciously and thus facilitate fears (i.e. doing it for others; not letting them down, trying to compete with someone and perhaps not beating them; or a time; or running in front of family for the first time and wanting to look “good”… or just letting ourselves down from our expectations of what we “should” be able to do). And, perhaps you just need to try to run-through these sensations to prove to yourself that you can do it. Like breaking through a barrier. (I’d do that running with someone; perhaps they can even talk you through it.) [Remember also we are assuming there is no physical reason for this whole thing and that you won’t be doing an damage by pushing through.]

By the way, don’t worry so much about the training effect of a break on that long run. It’s virtually irrelevant if you can’t finish the distance at all.

Ditto on wearing a watch. Forget the time and pace. Just run. You don’t need to know your time. Worry about that later.. not now while trying to diagnose and cure an issue. Your pace will be irrelevant if you don’t make it to the starting line with adequate total training.. right? In fact, run not only without a watch but purposely take a route you never go; take streets short cuts and long cuts and just GO. Worry about trying to figure out how long your long run was until afterwards. Make it an adventure. Only when we go to some extremes will we get better at figuring out what is really happening. For instance, if it really is totally physical – watch or not, known distance or not – you will always collapse at similar points because your body is giving up – for whatever reason. On the other hand, if it is a mental construct, our minds must have references – feedback that is – i.e. time/distance which the mind then interprets as – “too far” or “threatening” or “scary” whatever.

Be patient and attentive and you’ll find your way through this.


About Dean Hebert

I’m a mental game coach, author and speaker. I work with individual athletes, parents, coaches, and teams on sports performance enhancement. Beyond my academic post-graduate work in sports psychology - the psychology behind athlete performance – I am a certified Mental Games Coaching Professional (MGCP) and certified hypnotherapist. I’ve authored several books and hundreds of articles. “Coach, I didn’t run because…” (2008) is a seriously light-hearted look at making excuses not to workout and how to overcome them. “Focus for Fitness” (2009) and “Screw the Goals Give me the Donut” (2010) are two of my eBooks on mental game approaches for the everyday athlete. I wrote these because I believe that everyone can benefit from the powerful mental techniques that the world’s best athletes use. I have been cited in Runners World, Best Health magazine (CN), SWEAT Magazine, and the Washington Examiner amongst many other publications. I have been a featured mental games coach in Runner’s World and for the internationally acclaimed trail running resource - I also regularly appear on sports and fitness talk shows such as LTKFitness, Runnersroundtable and for more than three years I have co-hosted a weekly video series with Coach Joe English for I specialize in mental toughness training. My clients include tennis, synchronized swimming, golf, race-kart, soccer, motocross, volleyball, MMA, cycling (road, off-road, time-trialist), running, duathlon and triathlon, basketball, football and baseball athletes. I have coached world-class athletes and athletes internationally. I have a passion for working with youth athletes and helping them apply mental game skills and techniques to all areas of life. Most importantly, my aim is to have people enjoy sports and life to their fullest through peak performances.
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6 Responses to Anxiety with Running

  1. Rebecca says:

    LOVED this article and its perfect timing. I experience this same thing. I find myself ending a run although I am not really, if at all, fatigued. I bought a watch but don’t wear it because it adds to what I have also diagnosed as runner’s anxiety. I believe I have identified some negative mental tapes/self talk such as “I can’t do/handle this’ and ‘I won’t make it.’ I wonder, sometimes, how far I could really run if my mind didn’t interfere.

  2. Dean Hebert says:

    The important thing is to know you can conquer this. Your first step was identifying the issue and looking at those antecedents to the mental breakdown. Try some of these techniques. Please drop a line on your progress and what you experience. When I responded to this person via email, I also mentioned that though sometimes there is an easy fix, other times it requires 1:1 work with a mental games coach to work through. Stay in touch.

    • Rebecca says:

      Coach Dean, thank you for your considerate and timely response. I think I could really enjoy running and have, in fact, experienced moments of enjoyment. For the most part, however, I have this anxiety thing and, like the person who wrote in, it starts affecting my breathing… all of a sudden I almost start hyperventilating. I can link it directly to my thoughts because when I start with the anxious thoughts or negative self-talk that’s when the stressed and uncontrolled breathing occurs. Running is something I would really like to pursue and do long-term so I will be sure to try out your recommendations. I will let you know how everything goes. Thank you again! I really appreciate it.

  3. Jan says:

    True. True. True. When you know it’s not physical, you really need to try a menu of these strategies- and not just once. Each training/racing day is different so your mindset has to be to create some consistency in using the strategies. It definitely takes time. Patience is key. Like you said, identifying those moments, workouts, thoughts, etc. that are moving your ‘mentalness’ in a positive direction are worth writing down or even debriefing with your coach or teammate. Hearing myself verbalize these thoughts has been empowering. Thanks for the article ; )

  4. Pingback: Anxiety and Running Solutions: Part II « The Running World According to Dean

  5. Pingback: Anxiety and Running Solutions: Part III « The Running World According to Dean

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