Confronting running-related fear

Without fear, there can be no courage.
— Christopher Paolini
Confronting running-related fear

Whether you are a complete newbie runner or an elite Olympian, fear and running go hand in hand,  It's a weird conundrum. You desperately want to achieve a goal, whether it's to win a goal race, run your first mile without stopping, or enter your first 5K. At the same time, you know it's going to hurt and you dread the pain, even though you need to go through it to achieve your goal. This leads to fear and worse yet, anxiety.

Olympian and filmmaker Alexi Pappas wrote an Insightful article about the gripping anxiety she experiences before racing. She knows pushing her body to her physical limit is going to hurt. Newbie runners may experience a similar anxiety before going out to run a mile or two because they know it will hurt. The runners may be at different levels, but the anxiety they experience is the same.

Courage does not always roar

Humans are hard-wired to experience fear – the unpleasant emotion we feel when we perceive a perilous or threatening situation. Fear feels awful, but it's useful. Part of our survival instinct, it helps us sniff out and avoid danger. While fear usually comes and goes quickly, its cousin, anxiety, hangs in there, trailing us 24/7 and eroding our ability to stay in the moment. 

In my estimation, a little fear-induced adrenaline is a good thing. But when fear or anxiety get out of hand, your performance can suffer. Fear can even prevent us from working out or from entering or running races.

Fear: Some background

To deal with fear, you need to first understand how the brain processes it.

There are 3 basic fear responses: fight, flight, or freeze. These "reels" are formed in our brains between ages zero to 6, based on our early childhood experiences with fear. These response "reels" then become embedded in our "old" brain (the reptilian brain [brainstem and cerebellum] + mammalian/limbic brain [hippocampus, amygdala and hypthalamus]). These old "reels" then become our go-to, quick-fix "solution" anytime we perceive a threat – throughout our whole lives, in fact, unless we learn how to deal with fear more rationally using our "new" brain (the neocortex).

To illustrate fight, flight or freeze responses, which you will see are not ideal, let's look at classic examples from 3 popular films.

  • Fight – The angry-but-lovable alcoholic Miles Raymond, played by Paul Giametti in "Sideways" picks fights with everyone, from his best friend to complete strangers. His anger is always bubbling just beneath the surface.  His wife left him. No one wants to publish his novel. He is afraid to face the realities of his behavior and the lonely future he is creating for himself. He redirects his fear as anger at others so he does not have to confront it. 
  • Flight - Maggie Carpenter, played by Julia Roberts, continually dodges getting hitched in "The Runaway Bride," leaving behind a long trail of jilted fiancés.  She's afraid of commitment, but she's also terrified of losing her independence. So she flees. Over and over.
  • Freeze -  Ralphie in "A Christmas Story" desperately wants an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred Shot Range Model Air Rifle. (Say that 3x real fast.) Ralphie finally gets his chance to tell Santa his wish at a department store. Overwhelmed by the garish holiday display, the mean, militant elves, and the uber-creepy Santa, Ralphie freezes in fear.

So, how can fight, flight or freeze manifest in runners?  I've seen each of the scenarios below materialize as both a coach and a runner. 

  • Runners who are fight prone may misdirect their fear and get in scuffles with their friends, significant others, coaches and/or team mates.
  • Runners who are flight prone may habitually DNF, or quit mid-workout, particularly during tougher workouts like intervals or tempo runs.
  • Runners who are freeze-prone often talk themselves out of going for a run or getting to the start line of a race. 

5 tips to deal with running-related fear

Relax. Nothing is under control

To deal with fear, you first need to slow down and realize you are actually experiencing it. This can be a daunting admission. Ask yourself if the fear is warranted. Eg, are any man-eating tigers lurking, ready to pounce and eat you for dinner? If not, you'll want to toss the old "reels" and create more productive "reels" that lean on your neocortex – the "new," rational part of your brain.

1. Visualize to avoid a surprise. Part of fear comes from having to react to a surprise – like when a monster jumps out to scare you in a haunted house, or when a speedy rival suddenly shows up unannounced at a 5K you had a good chance at winning. To avoid surprises, use visualization to imagine what will happen during your runs or your races. Imagine yourself in great detail, for example, running neck and neck with your rival. Imagine her surging past you. Think of how you will react. Will you keep up? Return her surge? Visualize the not-scary things, too. Fast feet. Graceful form. Calm state of mind. Steady breathing. Most importantly, visualize yourself finishing – ahead of your rival.

2. Use a physical cue. Sometimes, a simple physical cue can get us "out of our heads" and back to the present moment.  I have a friend who simply touches his index finger and thumb whenever he feels anxious. This gesture reminds him to relax and get back in the moment.

3. Breathe deeply. Similar to the physical cue, focusing on your breathing can help you stay centered and in the moment. Inhale and exhale gently, in long, sustained breaths. Invoke a positive word on the inhale, and cast out your fear on the exhale. For example, "In with courage, out with fear." Or "In with stamina, out with heavy breathing."

4. Consider all possible outcomes. What's the worse that could happen? If you want to run an entire mile without stopping, the worst that might happen is that you don't run the entire mile without stopping. And you might feel fatigued, to boot. Keep your perspective. The good thing about running is that if you do the work, you will eventually improve. So even a bad run is better than no run. One run will not make or break you. Nor will one race. 

5. Give it time. In my experience, you tend to build up your resistance to fear, just like you build up any muscle. To give my body a break, for example, I took some down time in December then spent January getting back into shape. Now, my coach is dishing out harder workouts. Even though I love running fast, I dreaded (aka, feared) my first interval workout of the season and the paces he asked me to hit. The dull dread shadowed me for days before my run. Ditto, my first tempo run of the season. And my first track workout of the season. In reality, the second interval session, tempo run or track workout, is not so bad, partly, because you know what to expect. When you confront fear the first time – by completing the workout or running the race – you know you can meet the challenge. The same is true of racing. I'm usually more nervous before the first race of the season than I am before the last one. You build up your courage muscle. 

Notice that most running-related fear happens before the run or race. Not during the run or race.

The best way to deal with fear, is simply to confront it. So run on, you crazy diamonds!

How do you deal with running-related fear?