Worry, me? Never! Well, sometimes…

Running – and racing – really is a balancing act.

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You’ve just registered for a run, paid the entry fee and received the confirmation email. Now the panic sets in. We all know the feeling when realisation sinks in about the amount of training, planning and sacrifice ahead that you just willingly signed up for. It’s at this exact moment, the moment when the delicate balance between excitement and worry tips the wrong way, that the challenge suddenly feels way beyond us.

Unfortunately, many runners don’t only feel this in the aftermath of signing up for their latest challenge. Many feel an almost permanent worry about their running. Even those who are extremely successful in their work or family life lack self-belief when it comes to their running. If I look at recreational runners across the board, it becomes clear that we can be a vulnerable and worrisome bunch.

I have seen people who own multinational businesses and manage teams of fifty or budgets of millions of dollars fall to pieces because they couldn’t complete their run session. Don’t get me wrong, I’m prone to the occasional tantrum, but what is it about running that brings on all this anxiety in so many of us?

I think part of the answer is to do with the fact that as runners, we are always pushing boundaries and stretching comfort. The act of putting ourselves out there to be judged against previous experiences, other people and, of course, our own lofty expectations, is scary and can provoke worry. As a coach I have seen the downside to constantly feeding off this worry and trust me, it’s not pretty.

We worry excessively about being last, slowest, different or weak, and the list of is seemingly never ending. Newton’s third law says that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction“. And this is true in running, too – in other words, all of this excessive worry causes us to react excessively.

I have seen people react by trying to outrun their performance anxiety. They run faster, think that rest is for the weak and push themselves to breaking point, ultimately getting injured. Adversely, other runners become paralysed by their anxiety. They freeze, hide, stick their head in the sand and sabotage their training through food or drink. These are the types of things we do when the challenge in front of us seems far too daunting.

So how do we find the sweet spot? That point where there is just enough challenge, just enough stress, and just the right reaction?

There are plenty of theories on this, but one caught my attention recently in a book called The Rise of Superman. The author, Steven Kotler, talks about extreme sports athletes finding a state of ‘flow’ and the perfect balance of challenge and skill. Some people call this ‘getting in the zone’, but whatever you call it, there really is that sweet spot where the challenge is high and the level of skill you have gained to complete the challenge is equally as high. That is where you will find ‘flow’.

I wrote previously in this column about runners trusting our gut a bit more when we pick running challenges. If we choose our challenges based on gut feelings and goose bumps, we will have achieved the vital first part of the equation.

For the second part of the equation, we have to find the skills to rise to our chosen challenge. That means training, improving, learning, adapting and as we know, worrying. To me, some worry, stress or anxiety is perfectly acceptable if we are going to learn and improve, but not too much. The right amount will keep you accountable, push you to train well, be consistent, and do all the little things that add up to big improvements. Not enough of it and we become complacent and bored; too much of it and we can’t control our anxiety.

It’s a delicate balance and it’s certainly not an easy one to keep. But then again, where was it ever written that being a runner was easy? I certainly didn’t write that…

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