Anxiety and Running Solutions: Part III

Anxiety attacks associated with running seems to be more common (or maybe just interesting?) than even I had thought or encountered judging by the hits on this series of posts. So, I thought I’d add another solution for folks.

In the second post I outlined how to overcome anxiety with counting exercises.

This time I’ll share approaches that lean towards individual styles or preferences to filtering and processing information. Of course every individual has different learning and communication styles. Along that line, we have different interventions that will work depending on our preferred styles.

Preferred styles can be divided up in many ways. Anyone who has taken various assessments may already know this. The three most dominant styles are kinesthetic, auditory and visual.

Kinesthetic learners will prefer hands-on approaches and will focus on the feel of things (i.e. want to DO the exercise to learn best).
Auditory learners will prefer to listen to “get it” (i.e. want to be told step by step what to do/how to do it before trying it).
Visual learners want to see it demonstrated before launching into something new (i.e. watch a video or someone demonstrate the exercise/drill).

*Not sure which one you are? Contact me and I’ll send you a fast one page assessment.

Knowing your own predisposition or preference (which may be more than just one – though we most often have one dominant) is a key to how you may focus best. The issue with anxiety attacks precipitated by running is that our minds are triggered at some point during a workout or race to “panic” or shut down and tell ourselves “we can’t do this.”

Those who lean towards strong kinesthetic senses should try focus on these:
Feeling your footfall.
Feeling sweat roll down your face.
Feel the cooling breeze on your sweat.
Notice the rhythm of your legs.
Feel your arm carry – back and forth.
Notice the feel of your clothing on your skin (OK I’m assuming you’re wearing clothes here!)
Feel the heat rise from the streets you are running on.
Feel the change in temperatures as you change surfaces (i.e. move over grass or dirt from pavement).
Feel the sun on your skin (summer).
Feel the cold wind against your skin (winter).
Make fist and feel how that makes a difference in how you feel as you run. Then release it and compare the feelings.

For the stronger auditorily focused, try these:
Listen to your feet as they hit the ground.
Listen to the change in that sound on different surfaces.
Listen to traffic.
Listen to passing conversations.
Listen to birds.
Listen to music.
Listen to the rain as it hits your body or the ground.
Listen to the wind in the trees and bushes.
Listen to your breathing and the rhythm it has.
If you are with others, listen to them breath; listen to their footfall.

Visually oriented individuals can focus on anything their eyes gaze upon. This is the most common stronger orientation. The key is not to make “seeing” a passive activity. You must actively engage in nuances and intricacies of everything you can see to use this orientation successfully.
Focus on the colors of the environment.
Look for textures in the surface you are running on.
Notice how that with your arm carry, your lightly cupped hands just come into view as you look ahead.
Notice the rims of your sun glasses.
Look for people’s faces as you pass them.

In all the above examples you have to understand yourself first. If your labored breathing is something that triggers your errant thoughts then you probably should not be focusing on your breathing – listening to it or feeling your chest or whatever. Sometimes it may work for an individual to focus on exactly that trigger to “break through” but this is highly individual.

The goal with everyone of these techniques is to allow you to complete your workouts without an attack. As you become confident in your ability to go beyond that “trigger point” of your training, you will also physiologically have built the conditioning to go further and faster. If you continue to stop or quit workouts, it will be nearly impossible to reach your goals.

Everything I have suggested in this series of articles is technique oriented. In the process the confidence and mental barriers are diminished over time to allow you to perform at your potential. This does not however replace professional counseling for more deep seated or pervasive issues.

By the way, you can also use the sense of smell but I’m not sure you want to focus on smelling the runner next to you.


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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14 Responses to Anxiety and Running Solutions: Part III

  1. Christina says:

    The interesting thing about the three styles is they are all about bringing yourself BACK to the present moment. In my experience anxiety attacks are because I”m in the past but more often I’m in the future. By feeling, listening or seeing things happening AT THAT MOMENT, I’m being in the present moment. You can’t be in two places at once, present and future, present and past…a decision has to be made of where to be.

  2. Dean Hebert says:

    Wow.. 100% right on… ! It is indeed impossible to be both past and present or future and present at the same time.

  3. Pingback: Training — Fear on the run, fear of the run | Running Advice and News

  4. Pingback: Training — Fear on the run, fear of the run « Running Advice and News

  5. waverly says:

    im a new long distance runner and whenever my team and i have meets. i get really really scared and i kno thts why i do so bad. it’s as if my body just shuts down. im not a shy person, i don’t know what the deal is. why do i have them? its only witth running

    • Dean Hebert says:

      I wish there was a simple reason why any runner has these feelings… but it isn’t simple. It can be related to fears of failure, or embarrassment of performance. It could be doubts about conditioning, competition, ability to run, readiness to race… that become overwhelming. It can be from over concern about what others will think of you. It requires very thoughtful analysis… and not superficial. I wish I could simply address your issue but what I can tell you is to start by asking yourself lots of questions and do not settle for superficial answers. Then and only then can you pursue taming the fear and anxiety. The good news is that your feelings are not generalized to other areas of life… that goes a long way in getting a hold on this. If it were easy to figure out I guess I would be out of work as a mental games coach though, eh?

  6. Katy says:

    Good to know I’m not alone!
    I’m a long distance runner too – I’ve run 6 marathons and tons of half marathons. I generally run 45 miles or so a week.
    Sometimes, for some bizarre reason, I get terribly anxious on training runs and I have to just completely stop and pace up and down for a bit or close my eyes and tell myself it’s going to be OK. It’s actually really embarrassing ’cause it looks like I have no physical ability to people driving past when rather, I’ve run 6 marathons!
    It goes away after a while but I find once I’ve stopped once, I’ll do it again or I’ll think about places where I could stop like at a garage or something to use the toilet.
    I’d love to know how to resolve this since it’s becoming really detrimental to my training.

    • Dean Hebert says:

      As you can see, indeed you are not alone at all. And the syndrome of pre-race anxiety exists in runners all the way to the Olympic level.
      This series of articles gives you some insights but to really get a handle on it you may need to work with a mental games coach to get this worked out. Combined with some good questions/interviewing; an outside view of what is going on sometimes is what is needed. You are right that at some point there is an effect directly on your training. The good news is that it is very controllable. Drop me a line if you would like to discuss this further. or

  7. Simon Mottershead says:

    Hello I very much enjoyed your 3 articles on Anxiety and Running. I have suffered with panic attacks since I was 21 (I am 38). I started running 4 years ago to help with this, at first it worked great and I have run many HM 12 full Mara and 4 ultra events. However, I have now started getting anxiety attacks while running. Never really in training runs but almost always in races. In a recent HM it started at mile 8 and I ended up walk/running to the end, then again in a Mara I ended up walk/running from about mile 12. It’s horrible to say the least. What’s more upsetting is I know I can run a 3:58 Mara in training on my own but have never managed it in practice due to anxiety stepping in around 12-16 miles and having to walk/run to the end. My triggers and very common, it gets a bit difficult at mile whatever and I start thinking heart attack, fainting, I’m going to vomit (non of these things have ever happened and I am very fit well and healthy). Then after the race finishes I am embarrassed and down hearted that again panic is affecting the thing I love, running. Anyway thanks for the articles I will give your advice a whirl and see if it helps.


    • Dean Hebert says:

      No doubt it’s a one step at a time issue. But the fact that you started out without any such symptoms early on in your running may also mean that you are putting pressure on yourself for your performances. i.e. have to match previous times, have to improve, have to meet certain criteria, have to run and NOT feel any discomfort, etc. These expectations lead to increased stress and in your case stressful thoughts lead to your panic attacks.
      If you want mental game coaching on these I’m here to help. You would be a good candidate for a program.
      Hang in there… you can get back to loving your running…

      • Simon Mottershead says:

        Hi Dean thanks for response. Since writing that post I have had two further races (I told you I run often) one a 20 mile very hilly (1500ft elevation and descent) and one full out 10k. The 20 miler came first and again anxiety struck at around 15 miles, even though the terrain of the race meant a walk run approach was the order of the day from the start line (even for the guys and girls up front), once I started panicking I was walk running on the flats as well as the hills. However, I noticed something important during these panics, I had them pretty much after I checked my heart rate monitor every time. I suffered on to the end of the race in 4hrs dead (I figure about 3:20 would have been a realistic time for me on that course without anxiety). Anyway less than 24hrs later I’m lining up for the start of a local 10k and it stuck me ‘turn your fancy all singing all dancing watch off and run to feel’ so I did. Within the first kilometre my legs felt heavy from the previous days work and I began to feel the start of panic. I then remembered some of your advice and started counting trees my 2k I was fine and the rest of the race I pretty much went for it. I finished in 51:12 which is 2 minutes slower than my PB (i think you guys in the US call it a PR) for that course but I hadn’t run a tough 20 mile trail race the day before when I set that. So at the minute (and its real early days) my advice to others reading this is turn your all singing all dancing watch/phone microwave combo training device off, run to feel and when you feel the panic starting you start counting. I promise to let you know if this approach works on any longer races.

      • Dean Hebert says:

        To turn in that 10k time after that hard 20 miler is a very good job AND it should reinforce your ability to “go for it” even while fatigued. I am completely with you on turning off watches and monitors. It is our INTERPRETATION of the numbers that get to us. Those interpretations can be good but FAR more often are bad… I”m out too fast, I’m dying, I’ll never keep the pace, no wonder I’m laboring, I’ll never catch up, what if I can’t keep it up, now I can’t catch up…

        You get the idea. Only after our apocryphal interpretation do we then get stressed, anxious, depressed, down, angry or whatever.

        Please do keep me up on how this goes… remember to keep using what works for you.

        Well done and keep it rolling!

        We call them both PBs and PRs here.

  8. Lisa says:

    I came across this post while searching about anxiety attacks while running races. My daughter runs high school cross country and does very well; until the last half of the season when it really counts. About mile 2 she starts having difficulty breathing and is really struggling when she crosses the finish line; to the point of making loud inhalation noises (I wouldn’t call it a “wheeze” even though it is a higher pitch voice noise than her usual voice). I can talk her down from it (smell the flower, blow out the candle type of breathing). I consider this an anxiety attack as it doesn’t occur ever during practice, nor at the beginning of the season when the races don’t really “count”. Not sure how to talk her through these as she is frustated and said they just happen without warning. I’ve told her she needs to try and talk herself out of it, just as I did when she crossed the finish line. Her time has significantly decreased by about 1:30 when this happens (which is a lot of time to when running a 5K). Any hints on helping her talk herself out of this would be appreciated.

    • Dean Hebert says:

      Hi Lisa,
      You’re right 1:30 is a huge drop off in times.
      It does appear that from your description and onset that it is anxiety related.
      This is not as simple as you think. “Talking someone down” from something like this is a bandaid. To help your daughter get over this you would need a more comprehensive approach. The cause or causes must be determined, she must become insightful about precursors, thought patterns, situations and the like that are involved and then techniques applied to each of these to prevent such episodes from occurring. In a word – she needs a mental game coach. (And please if you’ve read other posts and comments, notice that I freely offer hints tips and ways to address many mental game issues so It’s not a matter of trying to sell you something. It’s just that this is not as simple as some “technique” solving it like a magic pill.) Also be prepared that a change in this will not happen over night. It will primarily depend on her diligence in learning and applying during the process.

      Think of it this way. It took your daughter 15 or 16 years to think and react this way… it won’t be overnight that she suddenly stops. She needs to unlearn her current patterns and reactions to “life events” and relearn more effective ones.

      If you would like to pursue assistance – email me.
      You can check out my website for more information:

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