Anxiety and Time Trials

Time trials (TT) and the anxiety they create in a runner is very real.Countless times I’ve witnessed it. Numerous times I’ve had inquiries and discussions about it. So many runners are averse to TTs and the efforts and discomfort they require. Anxiety of course is not merely being a bit nervous. Anxiety symptoms include excessive nervousness, the “jitters”, shortness of breath, thoughts that race through your mind, panic and a feeling of the need to “escape”, excess sweating, butterflies in your stomach, nausea and even vomiting.

It can be severe enough that an athlete will walk off the track half way through the trial. Or, they exhibit the classic signs of “choking”. The physical and mental symptoms are very real and create a barrier to strong performances – wasting energy and loss of mental focus.

Much like before a big race the idea of a time trial is intimidating to many runners. In fact, some runners will not run them as part of their training program unless they have a coach who will force the issue.

What can you do to decrease the anxiety response?

Semantics or not, the words we choose weigh heavy on how athletes (or anyone) interprets meanings. One thing I do is remove the term time trial.. I seldom use it now. I replace the term with “let’s run a mile and push it”… they ask “how hard?” I respond… “let’s see what you’ve got… but even paced.” OR, for particular individuals I will pick a pace which equals their PR pace… but make it perfectly even and tell them.. “just go out at (1:30)… no faster… and then finish hard”. The 1:30 being a 6:00 which may be their PR. The intent is that it becomes a pacing workout with a fast finish instead of a race from the star to get a fast time. End result is the same.

Another approach is to do a TT after several solid repeats, induce some fatigue, let them rest a bit then pop the TT on them. It reduces expectations since they indeed have some fatigue but it minimizes anxiety. [For instance run 2 x mile @ 5K pace and THEN run a mile TT; or do 6×400 @ 5k pace THEN the mile TT.]

Also a TT needs to be tailored. I approach it differently with different runners. Some runners I don’t want them to think. So to get their minds off the effort or time or it being a TT, I just tell them to follow so-and-so (who I know is one step faster than them or is a really good even pacer). Others I may have totally focused on pace and nothing else timing every 100 meters (straights and curves on a track). Others yet, I have them remove their watches and run by feel alone. All these approaches work on the mental aspect of running hard (a TT) and when you find the right approach for an athlete, they can rely on this technique in races to decrease race anxiety in the same way.

Here is one technique to explore with yourself or your athletes (if you coach). Have runners run your mile “TT”. Give them a solid full recovery 10-15 minutes. Jog some. Stay loose. Then, turn around and have them see if they can match their times in a second “repeat”. You will be surprised with the results. I have had runners run their two fastest mile repeats in their careers within half an hour! It explores limits. It demystifies a “TT”. It  builds confidence in their conditioning.

Finally, we can take a lesson from sprinters. Back in the 60s San Jose State was a mecca for sprinting (Smith, Evans, Carlos) they found that sprinters ran faster when they relaxed. Their fastest speed workouts (i.e. time trials) were never called such. In fact they were instructed to run at “99% effort”. This had the effect of telling the athlete to run as fast as possible without straining. Here is the funny thing – they ran faster at 99% than they did at 100%! So a final technique is to run a TT NOT at 100% but at 99%. You might surprise yourself with the results.

Finally, if you really want to improve your running, time trials are an integral part of a training program. The more you do of them, the less power they will have over you. Next time you are faced with doing your TT – fear not. Experiment with many ways to get the job done. You’ll find renewed confidence, conditioning and mental toughness in the process.


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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