How to Cope With Runner’s Anxiety

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The personality disposition that seems to be a major impediment in running performance is anxiety; all runners experience this feeling.  It can be identified by apprehension, tension, and nervousness in the mind and body.  Some of the more prominent physiological and psychological characteristics of anxiety are an increase in heart rate, increase in breathing, increase in sweating, twitching, dizziness, stomach upset, narrowing of the thought process, confusion, disrupted attention and expectation of failure.  Runners may experience any one, several or all of the characteristics listed above.

Knowing what these symptoms mean prior to a race is as important as the physical prerequisites to run the race.  The connotation of anxiety is usually negative; however, it can be a positive force in producing running success.  To achieve at anything we all need to experience anxiety.  This prepares the mind and body for the task ahead.  The important point here is how a runner interprets and copes with his/her anxiety.

Notice the terminology, “his/her anxiety,” the intention here is to illustrate that anxiety is individually determined based on a person’s interpretation of the situation.  This simple fact is of utmost importance in dealing with anxiety because our thoughts affect our physiological function.  That is, negative thoughts can produce tension, apprehension and nervousness initiating a negative effect that is transferred from the central nervous system to the skeletal-muscular system that in turn causes a decrement in running performance.  Before applying what we know about how to deal with the negative side of anxiety and running performance let us briefly discuss the theory behind anxiety and then have some basic understanding of the theory and move on to dealing with it in endurance running.

According to Speilberger, (1971) anxiety can be separated into two general areas, trait anxiety and state anxiety.  Trait anxiety is what we are born with.  As individuals we all have this characteristic trait.  What is interesting is that trait anxiety is found in different degrees in each of us.  This suggests that what may be anxiety producing in one individual may have little or no effect on another individual.  Thus trait anxiety according to anxiety theory is a part of our personality.

State anxiety on the other hand is transitory and is manifested according to the situation/circumstances in which an individual is placed.  In other words, we react in a positive or negative way depending on the specific situation.  Again, it is the individual’s interpretation of the situation that causes this anxiety.

Having a basic understanding of anxiety theory, we can now turn our attention to how this personality disposition affects runners.  Runner’s are usually competitors and therefore want to win.  To do so a runner needs to train and feel confident in their ability to get the job done.  If any doubts arise prior to performance, negative anxiety will inhibit performance.

Examples of situations that may initiate or contribute to negative anxiety might be; (1) questioning fitness and condition, (2) questioning training, (3) questioning competitors, (4) questioning understanding of the strategy to be used for a race, (5) questioning ability to succeed and on and on.  Once this questioning process begins, and the runner continues down this road he/she is doomed.

This type of mind set leads to what experts commonly call catastrophe.  When this thinking becomes a part of the running experience it is very difficult to change the course of this negative thinking and the downward spiral of performance that is sure to follow.

To negate this mind set from occurring a runner needs to prepare well in advance of race day.  This entails planning in all phases of the runner’s world.  This includes establishing social order in the life of the runner as much as is possible, maintaining a nurturing diet, getting enough sleep to feel energized each day, accepting the unexpected during a race, (weather problems, terrain problems, timing problems, etc.) and planning a training schedule that produces the maximum performance for the runner.

While we cannot cover all of the previous mentioned preparation areas, let us now concentrate on our efforts on the actual physical training of the runner to positively effect running performance.  First, recognizing whether the type of anxiety a runner is experiencing is positive or negative is most important.  This may be difficult in the beginning, especially if a runner is a neophyte to running.  All runners experience some form of anxiety prior to, during, and sometimes following a race.  What’s important is coping with this anxiety and eventually succeeding in controlling it to improve running performance.

Earlier we mentioned several situations that may come up prior to or during a race.  Many of these questions can be eliminated from a runners mind set by preparing for the race.  Granted even with physical preparation there is always some doubt.  To prevent this doubt a runner needs to be self assured that they have done everything possible to prepare for the race.

Still anxiety has a way of creeping in and eventually producing negative thoughts that could ultimately have an affect on performance.  The key to preventing this type anxiety from occurring is to practice positive thinking throughout training and during a race.  This can be done through mental imagery; seeing, feeling, and sensing in your mind’s eye overcoming situations in the past that have caused poor performances should mitigate these occurrences.  Mentally imaging these situations as consistently as a runner physically practices should produce a mind set that eventually can overcome these negative anxiety situations.

Overall the key to overcoming negative anxiety is understanding what it is and is not.  A runner’s interpretation of the situation dictates how he/she will respond.  Preparation, belief in self and utilizing mental imagery to overcome the pitfalls of anxiety should lead to a more successful running performance.

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