Do you stress out about running, especially when it’s a tough workout or race day? Learn how to enjoy stress-free running with tips from a professional runner.
Most runners know that exercise in general (and running in particular) is a great way to burn off stress. It’s just science: loads of studies have shown that regular, moderate exercise can decrease the body’s stress hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline, while promoting the release of endorphins, the molecules responsible for the bliss-inducing “runner’s high.” And aside from the physiological benefits, going for a run means spending time outdoors and with friends, both of which are crucial for a healthy mental state.
Based on the evidence, it sounds like runners should spend their lives in a constant state of zen. But wait, you might think, I know plenty of stressed-out runners. I’m a stressed-out runner. What gives?
Here’s the catch.
Runners tend to be competitive people. We also miiiight have perfectionist tendencies. Sometimes external stress can seep into your running life, making a normally enjoyable workout feel like a chore. And sometimes, a personal running goal can become a source of stress rather than an outlet for it.
Most of us experience some form of jitters on and leading up to race day. As an athlete with anxiety issues, this is something I deal with pretty frequently. If you’re like me, normal jitters can get out of hand and negatively affect my life, resulting in disrupted sleep, tense muscles, and all-around edginess – less than ideal for running fast or enjoying your weekend long run.
Luckily, there exist a number of ways to keep running (and non-running) related stress at bay. Here are a few of the best tools I’ve found to help keep race-day nerves in check, improve performance, and, most importantly, keep the fun in running.
Tools for stress free running
It might sound hokey, but regular meditation can make a world of difference when it comes to anxiety and stress levels. Far from simply being a hippie’s favorite pastime, meditation helps train your body to relax in conditions where it would normally tense up. It even helps your blood pressure.
Dr. Bob Swoap, a professor of psychology at Warren Wilson College, explains that the deep breathing associated with meditation stimulates the vagus nerves, which aide in whole-body relaxation “like an internal klonopin”.
Much like running, meditation requires practice. Scheduling out a few minutes at a regular time each day for mindfulness practice will help turn it into a habit. It doesn’t have to be a huge time commitment; even three minutes a stretch can make a marked difference. Guided meditation apps are a great option if simply sitting isn’t your thing. I use the 10% Happier app, but other popular ones include The Mindfulness App, Insight Timer, Headspace, and Stop, Breathe and Think.
2. Practice Breathing
This is one that seems pretty obvious at face value; I mean, we all know how to breathe, right? Well, yes and no.
With or without meditation, simple breathing exercises are a stellar supplement to any running regimen. Odds are, if you are reading this then you already have a fully functional set of lungs and know how to use them. The trouble is, when your body encounters stress, whether the physical stress of hard exercise or the mental stress of an upcoming race, it sends your respiratory system into overdrive.
This manifests as a lot of short, shallow breaths that deliver tiny doses of oxygen through your system very quickly, but don’t allow your body to extract all the O2 it needs to function well. The result: lightheadedness and fatigue.
Luckily, deep breathing exercises can help. This technique is also called diaphragmatic breathing (due to its engagement of the diaphragm) and is a favorite of my coach, Pete Rea. To practice, find a quiet, comfortable place to sit or lie down on your back. Place one hand on your chest and one on your stomach, just below the ribcage. Breathe in slowly and deeply, until your stomach is pushed out as far as it will go. Then, exhale slowly with your lips pursed until you’ve released as much air as possible. Repeat this cycle for between five and ten minutes, five or six times a week. This simple practice can drastically help when I feel stressed.
3. Have a Mantra
When the going gets tough, the tough rely on positive self-affirmation.
In Sanskrit, the word “mantra” means “instrument of thought”. And indeed, mantras are one of the best tools for redirecting negative thoughts and replacing them with positive ones.
Everybody experiences pain or self-doubt during a race or hard workout. Once things start to hurt, taking another step becomes about as appealing as poison ivy toilet paper. But concentrating on the pain can trigger a cycle of self-defeating thoughts. Mantras are there to break this cycle and pull you into a positive loop instead.
Developing a mantra is as easy as finding a phrase (or even a single word) that resonates with you – this can be something as elaborate as “my body is a fine-tuned machine” or something as simple as “bravery”. During my second marathon, I picked the name of a different friend or family member each mile and repeated it over and over in my head. That way, when the race got painful, I was able to focus on their love and support instead of wallowing in my own misery.
4. Keep it in Perspective
Listen. A race or workout that feels like the biggest deal ever probably isn’t. The world won’t end if you don’t PR every race; it’ll keep turning if you have a crappy long run or sub-par workout. It’s easy to get swept up in the hype, but, to quote my mom, “at the end of the day, it’s just a footrace”.
This sport is amazing: a way to build community, stay fit, test personal limits and do things you might have never thought possible. It’s perfectly healthy to set goals and shoot for them.
But every now and then, take a moment to stop and smell the (literal or metaphorical) roses. Laugh. Breathe. And don’t forget to have fun with it.
About the author: Joanna Thompson is a part-time professional runner for On ZAP Endurance. Originally from Knoxville, Tennessee, Joanna graduated from NC State University in 2015 and moved to Blowing Rock, NC to pursue her running dreams before pursuing her other dream of writing. She is an avid reader, an enthusiastic baker, and a self-proclaimed huge nerd and starting NYU’s graduate program for Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting (SHERP) in August 2020. You can find her on Instagram here. Shoot her a DM and ask for her email address to speak further!
What are some ways you deal with running nerves?
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