How to Limit, and Even Use, Your Anxiety During a Race

Wed, 12 Oct. 2011 - 9:27 p.m. MT
Credit: ARA Staff - American Running Association

One personality disposition that can become a major impediment in running performance is anxiety. All runners experience this feeling. Its key components are apprehension, tension and nervousness in both mind and body. Physiological manifestations of anxiety include increased heart rate and sweating, labored breathing, muscle twitches, dizziness and stomach upset. Psychological symptoms include confusion, attention disruption, and an expectation of failure. Runners may experience several or all of these symptoms.

Consequently, the connotation of anxiety is usually negative, but it can also be a positive force in producing running success. Knowing what these symptoms mean and being able to address them during a race can help you harness their potential to motivate you to a strong finish. Anxiety can be the signal that challenges you to rally at the task ahead. Our thoughts affect our physical function; and negative ones can transfer from the central nervous system to the musculoskeletal system, causing a detriment to running performance.

Traditionally, anxiety has been separated into two general types: Trait Anxiety and State Anxiety. Found in different degrees in each of us, Trait Anxiety is the sort of baseline anxiety with which we have each been born, a part of our general personality. Some people may be naturally anxious where others feel relaxed. State Anxiety is a transitory anxiety triggered by specific circumstances. As with Trait Anxiety, an event that brings one person into noticeable levels of State Anxiety may have no such effect on another person. The difference is that we have a good deal of control over State Anxiety.

The Wrong Questions
Our interpretation of a situation has much to do with whether we feel anxiety in regard to it. As runners, it is important to avoid the type of personal-ability questioning that can plague a race performance. Examples of this destructive interpretation of a physical stress situation include:

1. Am I fit enough to race at this pace?

2. Did I train correctly or did I arrive fatigued?

3. Are my competitors better prepared and faster than me?

4. Did I plan my mile splits right or am I in over my head?

5. Can I run the distance to the finish or am I risking injury?

These are questions that can have their place, particularly if you feel an acute pain or find yourself running considerably faster than your pre-race strategy; yet many times we are in the bounds of what we planned for, well hydrated, well rested, and not feeling stride-altering pain when anxiety sets in and compromises our performance. When these feelings occur, focus on your preparedness. This psychological assurance is another benefit of arriving to the start line well trained, nourished and rested.

The Right Images
You may also wish to use visualization techniques in your training to give you strong, positive images of success to conjure during difficult points in your race. Visualization techniques involve imagining situations in which you are challenged during the event, and then imagining overcoming those challenges. Examples include running up a steep incline, being outpaced by a passing runner, sensing the onset of muscle fatigue and reaching for an ever-receding bend in the course ahead. You then see yourself surging on the steepest part of the hill, receiving a turbo boost just as your competitor tries to pass you, getting an injection of oxygen to those tired muscles or closing the distance and rounding that curve ahead to the finish.

You should imagine these powerful scenarios both during your training runs and in your spare quiet time, as a kind of meditation on the event as the date approaches. Once you practice calling these images to mind, you’ll find you can quite easily rely on them whenever runs become difficult. Here are a few additional images you can use during a long run or race:

1. feeling a bungee cord around your chest and hooked to an object in the distance which pulls you along

2. seeing a personal best time on the finish line clock as you cross

3. finishing ahead of a faster rival

4. “thinking away” discomfort (do not ignore stride-altering pain)

5. imagining your feet as two wheels rolling beneath you. You are pedaling a tiny bicycle, pulling up on the pedals rather than pushing down on them.

Finally, turn off the chatter and listen to your body. In turn, instruct your muscles to relax and go to work. Feel the perfect tempo and enjoy the experience. 

Go With the Flow
The concept of flow is closely related to and oftentimes achieved with mental imagery techniques. In sports (as well as many other disciplines), a “flow state” refers to a positive psychological state in which a person finds an almost euphoric balance between the challenge at hand and his or her capabilities. It is a relaxed state, not one of hyperawareness, though the performance result resembles that of a deep and total focus on the task. A flow state is the opposite of overthinking; you are “in the zone” and things seem almost effortless as you proceed feeling exactly matched to the task. In endurance running, remaining mentally in the present, with no regard for what is behind or ahead, is one way to ready the mind for this euphoric state—each step is the only step. It may also help to view the running task not in competitive terms, but as a natural process of oxygen intake and energy expenditure that rolls along without regard for strategy. Flow state is about recognizing positive feelings and capitalizing on them as you run.

Put Up a Fight
Sometimes a flow state can remain elusive. At such times, there is certainly a place for a competitive spark in your arsenal of mental strategies. And the fuel that ignites the competitive spark is mental toughness. This is a psychological disposition that fosters a need to stay in the game, not give up, push past all limits and plow through failure to success. If flow state running involves capitalizing on positive feelings, mental toughness strategies can be thought of as capitalizing on negative feelings. Mental toughness is the gift that keeps on giving. Each time you push through failure and finish strong, you strengthen this disposition and make it that much more accessible and effective for the next challenge.

Practice competing, even in your solo runs, so that you may readily call upon these feelings during a race. First, be sure a hard run is on your schedule, and that you are physically ready for such a run. (Remember, regardless of what the schedule says, muscle fatigue or sluggishness means your biggest benefit that day will come from taking it slow and easy.) Once you are warm and feel ready to run hard, you can compete against the clock, as in interval training on a track, hill repeats or variable-pace road runs. You can compete against another runner. You can even compete against objects by spotting neighborhood landmarks and keeping pace until you reach them. These running games teach you that you can push past limitations, which fosters the key ingredient you’ll want in spades on race day: self-confidence.

(Dreyer, Danny, 2004, Chi Running, New York, Simon & Schuster, 236 pp.; Csikszentmikalyi, Mikaly, 1990, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, New York, Harper and Row; Speilberger, CD, 1971, “Trait-state anxiety and motor behavior,” Journ. Motor Behavior, Vol. 3, pp. 265-279)

Portions of this article were contributed by Frederick C. Surgent, Ed. D., HPER, professor of Health, Physical Education and Recreation at Frostburg State University, a constituent institution of the University System of Maryland.

(RUNNING & FITNEWS® June / July / August 2007 • Volume 25, Number 4)

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