Suffer from Pre-Race Anxiety? Here’s How to Accept the Pain
The psychology behind why we get so nervous before a race and strategies for coping with the impending pain
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If you are like most runners, you often fight anxiety and nervousness before races.
Part of that anxiety is simply that in any race, you are putting yourself to a test in which you might triumph … or not. But there’s another issue most of us don’t easily admit. Racing all-out hurts. “The 1500 feels like fire for a few minutes,” says two-time Olympian Molly Huddle. “The marathon is more like an hour-long ache.”
Holly Hight, a road runner and novelist with a 16:39 5K PR, says that whenever she stepped to the line she knew, “I was going to put myself through hell to see what I wanted on the clock. I felt anxiety over both the pain and performance.”
Or, as I myself often wondered in the middle of races, why do I insist on doing this to myself every few weeks?
In the middle of the race, it is too late to do anything about it because you are already committed, and you know you aren’t going to quit. But before the race, however, this type of anxiety can be crippling.
The Psychology of Pre-Race Anxiety
“Fear is the mind-killer,” Frank Herbert wrote in his acclaimed science fiction novel Dune. “Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.”
Jeff Simons, a sports psychologist at California State University, East Bay, puts it a bit more clinically. “Anxiety and pain have a reciprocal relationship,” he says. “Pain naturally stimulates fear, and fear makes pain intolerable.”
Mackenzie Havey, author of Mindful Running: How Meditative Running Can Improve Performance and Make you a Happier, More Fulfilled Person, assigns part of the blame to a primitive part of the brain called the amygdala, which controls flight-or-fight responses to perceived danger.
“When you have pre-race nerves or pre-race panic, the amygdala hijacks your brain,” she says. “Stress hormones cascade. You’re letting your brain wander, unchecked, and what the research says is that when we let our mind wander, it goes to bad places.”
How to Cope and Accept the Pain
So, what do you do about it?
One way to start is to remember that you aren’t actually damaging yourself with the pain that comes from intense activity. (Trying to race through an injury is, of course, a different matter.)
Also, realize that the pain is under your own control. To make it go away, all you have to do is back off. Not that you will, but you can.
During the race, I never had an answer to my “why do I do this to myself?” question, so I postponed it until afterward…at which point I was no longer interested because I was already planning my next race.
What this taught me, over the years, is that fear of the pain is something you only experience before it comes. During it, the fear is gone because you are in the moment. Afterwards, you forget it.
One of the best ways to get through Herbert’s “little death” into the reality of the race, Simons says, is to “reconceptualize” the pain that you are fearing.
Herbert put it this way: “I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
Havey puts it in terms of “affect labeling” — recognize your anxiety and acknowledge it. “I think of it as putting a Post-It note on the thought and letting it go,” she says. Then, redirect your mind to the present, using whatever tools works best for you, whether they be meditation, breath control, or something different. “Anything to anchor your mind to the present,” she says.
It’s a process I’ve used in waiting for everything from races to dental appointments to surgery. Something unpleasant is going to happen in the future, but it is not happening now.
But ultimately, postponing the fear may only get you so far. That’s where reconceptualizing comes into play.
It begins, Simons says, by changing your mental language. Instead of thinking in terms of “pain,” which is inherently frightening, he says, think in terms of discomfort or something similarly “more neutral.”
Also important is to realize that you really aren’t facing torture in a Gestapo holding cell: the pain you are fearing is something you’ve entered into voluntarily and chosen to encounter. “Some of the reconceptualization is simply recognizing the relative transience of the [discomfort] and juxtaposing it with [the] meaningful, wondrous, and fulfilling parts of the experience,” he says.
In fact, it’s even possible to reconceptualize the pain into something positive. “My philosophy has been to embrace the fact that it’s going to hurt,” says Ben Rosario, head coach of HOKA’s Northern Arizona Elite program. “Make the pain the best part, the part you’re looking forward to most,” he says.
Huddle agrees. “I try to reframe it as leaning into and embracing the parts that hurt,” she says, “because [that’s] usually when the ‘racing’ happens, which is the fun part, and the deciding factor of the race.” Also, she notes, “I’m getting the most out of myself if it hurts.”
Ultimately, says Simons, the goal is to convert the pain you fear into “information,” rather than a “scary ‘threat’ of something awful.”
This, he says, allows you to be “action-oriented” and feel more in control, rather than at the mercy of external forces.
“This is also where your strategy can be extended to, ‘What can be done right now?’” he says. And the shift from fear to that mindset, he says, “is almost always a winner.”