#Truth: pre-race nerves plague many runners. #Truth: running can be an effective antidote to anxiety. Also #truth, yet rarely uttered aloud: there are those of us who run with anxiety.
This type of anxiety is an exercise induced stress. People like me, that are prone to generalized anxiety, can be triggered by intense aerobic exercise because their fight/flight response (erroneously) kicks in. In these cases, running and anxiety can mimic each other physiologically. Both manifest in the body with symptoms including elevated heart rate, sweating, and muscle tension. Some days the feeling of anxiety may persist from the starting line to the finish line. Other days, it may be an anxiety or panic attack before, during, or after the run. But just like that, an easy run can trick my already over-alert anxious mind and body into thinking that it needs to run for its life.
In 2018, after running my first 5K race I published an article in Like The Wind magazine entitled “I Can: How Running and Two Jasons Taught Me to Breathe Again”. It detailed the beginning of my running journey—literally from couch to 5K—during a time in my life when I was dealing with even more challenging anxiety and depression following a devastating relationship ending. I shared many of the ways in which I came to understand similarities between running and relationships. I ended by talking about the success of completing this race by managing my thoughts instead of letting them manage me.
I felt great about that accomplishment. Several months later, I also felt like an impostor. The anxious feelings during my runs persisted. So, I raised the bar. I figured that with more running successes, I would feel less anxious. I ran two 10K races in 2019. I ran a half marathon in 2020. But I still can’t outrun the anxiety and often feel a panic-inducing tightness in my chest or churning in my stomach at some point during my runs.
I yearn for the types of runs that I hear so many others experience. Runs that lessen my anxiety instead of increasing it. Runs that clear my head instead of clouding it. And occasionally, they happen. I get glimpses of these experiences. It’s like chasing the horizon though. Living with anxiety is a part of who I am both as a person and as a runner.
Yet, I continue to try. I meditate. I have a supportive running coach. I keep a running journal. I have a watch that doubles as a phone just in case I have a panic attack along the route. I read inspiring running stories (favorite: Let Your Mind Run by Olympian Deena Kastor). I make playlists of empowering songs that I listen to, each perfectly curated by distance and level of motivation I believe I will need at different points throughout my runs. A la Thomas Edison, I haven’t failed in my endeavors to lessen my running anxiety. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t (always or entirely) work.
John Bingham, spokesperson for the slow-running movement said, “What distinguishes those of us on the starting line from those of us on the couch is that we learn through running to take what the day gives us, what our body will allow us, and what our will can tolerate.”
Building on the above, I’m learning that the same goes for those of us who live and run with anxiety:
- Each day is different. When I’m in a state of heightened anxiety, I tend to run a shorter distance. I accept that my ability to run 10K one day and 2K the next is not a reflection of my fitness or my potential.
- Listen to your body. I go slower. It’s not comfortable for a perfectionist to be at the back of the pack (and let’s face it, many runners have perfectionist tendencies) but this has helped me keep many of the physiological symptoms that register as anxiety at manageable levels.
- Increase resilience. I still push myself to get out there most days. Although it may seem strange to keep doing something that increases my feelings of anxiety, running also increases my sense of resiliency. I continue developing the strength to get through stressful situations rather than avoiding them.
I’m certainly proud when I complete a race or achieve a PR. I’m most proud though that I have not given up on running or on myself. Even on the days when I fail to run the planned distance or keep the anxious feeling at bay, I remind myself that the “failure” simply means that I am trying to do something that is difficult. Maybe not difficult for others, but difficult for me. The journey is truly a marathon, not a sprint. It’s long, it’s challenging, and it requires (mental and physical) training. It also has the potential to be incredibly rewarding. So, if you are someone who also knows what it is like to run with anxiety, you are not alone. I believe in your ability to mentally and physically keep going the distance too.
Written by: Jamie Gelbtuch