In today’s episode, we continue our mental training and mindset series for runners with a discussion on conquering our fears, worries, and insecurities. It could be fear of pain, fear of racing, fear of injury, fear of trying new race distances or goals, fear of failure, race anxiety, general anxiousness, and so on.
We all struggle with fear whether we are aware of it or not. Fear doesn’t just live in our active thoughts, it also lives deep inside our subconscious mind and has a physiological impact on us as well.
Today, I’ll discuss how fear impacts our mindset and how we think, and how fear plays out in our running. We’ll wrap up the episode with 9 quick tips on controlling fear or anxiety or using it to your advantage.
Fear is a very powerful motivator that can propel us to do something positive or paralyze us from taking action when we should.
When it comes to fear, fear is something that can be real or perceived. Sometimes there is a real danger and other times that danger can be perceived, but not really there. There are also levels of fear from extreme fear or terror, to fear that may be masked behind other emotions or feelings. But regardless of whether real or perceived or what level it exists, all fear creates a physiological response. Fear isn’t just a mind thing.
As soon as some fear stimulus whether real or perceived is triggered, the amygdala in our brains kicks off a series of physiological events. (The amygdala are part of the limbic system within the brain, which is responsible for emotions, survival instincts, and memory)
Once the stimulus is received, signals are sent to your autonomic nervous system (ANS), which then kick starts a wide range of actions
Your heart rate increases, your blood pressure goes up, your breathing gets quicker, and stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are released. Adrenaline kind of acts like a fire alarm system for the body and the cortisol helps with energy conversion among other things. The blood starts to flows away from the heart and out towards the extremities, preparing the arms and legs for action.
When fear occurs suddenly and unexpectedly, the brain triggers a fight or flight response. This kind of fight or flight fear is understandable, but will not be what I am discussing today.
The fear I will be discussing is more subtle than that. It is more of the slower or emotional or “feeling” type fear. For example, anxiety or reluctance.
For those of you who have run a race before. Think back to your very first race. Or even the night before a big race. Remember that anxious feeling? Or maybe you got so worked up you couldn’t sleep. Maybe you had the butterflies in your stomach feeling. Or maybe you just had a fear of the unknown or what to expect.
This type of fear isn’t the result of getting attacked on the running trail or coming across a wild mountain lion or bear which is something some of you actually have to deal with.
I can’t imagine having to worry about something that could stalk, kill and possibly eat me.
I remember when I started training for my first marathon, my fear of the unknown led to reluctance. On one hand, I was excited and wanted to run a marathon, but I doubted myself whether or not I could actually run a marathon. I was reluctant to start training despite being a pretty confident person who will try just about anything.
To be honest these feelings followed me the entire way despite knowing that millions of others had gone before me and paved the way towards training for and running a marathon. Every week, the worry or fear was something different. The runs got longer, the weather got warmer. Race day got closer. Something was always there in my mind.
Would I be able to finish?
Would I be able to stay injury-free?
Would I be fast enough?
What would people think if I failed, or even dropped out of training?
All these reactions or self-doubts are completely normal.
But things are rarely as bad as they seem. In a lot of ways. We really become our own worst enemy.
President Franklin Roosevelt famously asserted, “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.” If we think about it, fear of fear probably causes more problems in our lives than the fear itself.
Fear can lead to excessive stress, fatigue, and prematurely wear us out. Even a tiny bit can kick in and the biological fear response keeps the body in a heightened state where cortisol and other
biological stress hormones are constantly being released. Over time, or if not regulated, this can lead to a whole slew of health issues and chronic conditions. In the short term, it can wear us out where we do not feel like running.
If you are someone who struggles with pre-race jitters, and other forms of anxiousness, stress, and fear like those we have discussed, the best thing to do is remove or deal with the fear response directly. But if the fear and anxiety are dealt with appropriately, it can be a motivator to train so that you are prepared on race day.
The worth it belief is one anecdote for fear. When something is worth it, we can often deal with the fear triggers themselves to not necessarily overcome the feelings but get you past the
lack of action or paralysis to accomplish the task you want to accomplish. The best way to describe this is by using an example.
How many of you have ever gotten into a big flying metal tube and traveled 600 miles an hour to go somewhere? Why? That’s dangerous, isn’t it? Sure, it’s safer than driving, but still, it's not fail-safe. Planes sometimes crash. Mechanical systems fail, poor weather, whatever it may be, there is no 100% guarantee that the plane won’t crash. It’s probably 99.999% positive it won’t, but still, there is the potential for something bad happening. On the other hand, there is a 95% probability that your travel will be a pain in the butt. Now in this scenario, at what point do you get on the plane? At what point is the small risk of flying, or something bad happening to you worth taking the risk?
What about driving down the road at 65 to 70 miles per hour? or the typical cab driving? lol… With so many people texting or talking on their cell phone why do we take the risk? You have a much higher probability of risking life or injury in an automobile, yet most of us don’t think twice about getting in the car and driving to work. Why?
It’s worth it.
Somewhere along the line, we decided that getting to where we needed to go was worth overcoming the fear of getting in the car and driving. Remember, when you drove a car for the first time? Remember how you felt? If not scared, I bet you certainly felt anxious. I was scared to death getting into the car with my daughter as she drove for the first time. Yet, as parents we all do it. Why? It’s worth it. Driving my daughter to and from soccer practice or choir practice becomes a burden plus we know it is a right of passage to enter the adult world.
Life without fear would be like chips without salsa. Fear is normal when you’re doing/learning something new. Fear, in this case, is not there to be gotten rid of but to be acknowledged. Somehow, somewhere we’ve learned that we should be fearless. We forget that fear is a part of our life. I’m not fearless. I deal with fear every day. I doubt myself just like you. But I keep moving forward. How?
I’ve trained myself to focus on taking the next step, instead of getting stuck in the “what if” movies that may play inside my head. It is not something I am always successful with because I tend to internalize and over analyze stuff way more than I should. I can sometimes work myself into a big giant stress ball, and THAT is when fear, anxiety, and worry cross the line to being unproductive and useful.
Fear will be there when you start. Fear will be there when you’re successful. The key to overcoming fear is to let it be there while putting one foot in front of the other.
Sometimes the best thing to do is to step aside and put ourselves in a time out. Just like the parenting technique with kids who act up. Often, we work ourselves into a frenzy, but if we take the time to step away from our situation, our perspective changes and sometimes our fears go away.
When I look back to some of the moments in my life where I felt highly stressed, anxious or fearful, taking a second to think through the situation from the perspective of “What’s the worst that can happen?” often helps. Let’s say you are training for your first 10k and you feel like maybe you are undertrained. Instead of worrying about it, ask yourself “what is the worst that will happen?” The reality of the situation is that nothing will happen. You may have to walk a bit. You may feel a little extra tired. But you will be fine. In most cases, the worst never happens anyways. Usually, it is something much milder than what you thought.
There is a saying, “if you fall off a horse, get right back on it”. Take a minute and think about the time you learned how to ride a bike. If you were like every other kid I have seen (including my own), you were terrified of falling. I remember working with my daughter and when she fell, at first she was reluctant to try again. She would fuss and cry and often psyche herself out until eventually, I could coax her back for another attempt. With tears in her eyes and puffy swollen cheeks from crying, she would once again try. And try. And try, until eventually, she learned how to ride a bike without fear. By taking her fear head-on, she learned to not be afraid. And of course, as a parent, that is when you really start worrying about them because now all you can think about is them getting hit by a car or a thousand other fears like getting kidnapped or wiping out.
As runners, we often expect that each run or race will go as planned. Instead, if we go out with the expectation that IF something goes wrong, you are prepared to handle it, you will be far better off than the person who expects to have a perfect run each time. Perfect runs rarely happen.
Now, you may be thinking, “Isn’t that the same as worrying or accepting the fear?”.
No. You are not fearful, you are confident in your abilities to deal with the situation should they come up. This is different because you aren’t dwelling on what could go wrong. You aren’t getting stressed out over it.
Remember visualization in the past episode? Visualization works here as well by mentally preparing you for things that could come up in a race. It doesn’t mean that they will, but you will be prepared because you practiced them. You shouldn’t worry about things you have no control over. Instead, embrace the fact that you are stronger than any situation that can come up and have faith in your ability to adjust to situations on the fly.
Sometimes just having someone to talk to goes a long way in dealing with the fear, especially the fear of the unknown. Most of us feel better when we get things off our chest. Often the other person can help you see a side of the problem that you may not have considered, or give you advice that makes you feel better.
Remember, when it comes to a race, you have trained for it. When it comes to the long run, you have put in runs prior to get you to that point. When it comes to worrying about the weather, most likely you have run in worse. Go into any situation feeling confident that you are ready. What’s the worse case? Go back and read that section if you skipped over it.
Rewards provide positive reinforcement. When you have successfully dealt with the situation that caused the fear or anxiety, reward yourself. Do this repetitively and you will not only learn to embrace the situation but often you welcome the challenge. In other words, you took a negative situation and flipped it over to a positive one.
If you struggle with fear, worry, anxiety, remember you are 100% normal. It is something that we all deal with. How we deal with it though takes patience, practice and in some cases perseverance. Trust in your training. Even if your training wasn’t ideal, it is better than many others who are out there on race day. Take comfort in that you are still moving. You are still doing an activity that is worthwhile. We can’t let these feelings, that is all they are, get in the way of our progress. Remember, it’s worth it. Tell yourself, it’s worth it. You're worth it.
Have a great week!
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