When Running Stresses You Out…
I’m standing in the tiny kitchen of my flat, staring at the fridge. I’m not rummaging for the food that’s in it, I’m looking at what’s pinned on it: a marathon training calendar.
The plan is two pages long. I couldn’t fit 16 weeks’ worth of workouts on one sheet of paper, and that alone causes anxiety to bubble up each morning when I review the day’s workout. The calendar is covered with red pen scribbles – a method I used to make changes because I’m not only training for a marathon, I’m also trying to have a life. Scanning the sea of red makes me want to go back to bed instead of lacing up my takkies.
I’m not sure exactly when my relationship with running turned toxic. Instead of my kilometres being the stress reliever I rely on to tackle a busy day – my time to meditate, or work through mental blocks – they’re starting to add more stress. Setting my alarm clock for an early run brings about dread instead of excitement, and setting out my clothes for the next day now causes huffs of exasperation; none of which puts me in the right headspace for a good run.
All of these signs may point to a problem, and David Siik, senior manager of running and creator of Precision Running at Equinox in Los Angeles, says it has everything to do with, well – me.
“Runners make the mistake of believing that [their relationship with] running is only about emotions,” he says. “The reality is, [it] relies on two distinctive and equally important parts: your emotions around running, and your attitude towards running.” The two are connected but different, he says. If running feels stressful, that’s an emotion – one that’s likely to be spurred by an attitude shift.
It makes sense. Endorphin-induced positivity is not the only feeling associated with running. There’s the guilt that washes over when I miss a friend’s birthday party due to a long run, the frustration when I don’t hit my goal pace, and the stress over investing so much in yet another pair of running shoes.
All of these examples have a negative connotation, because – in the moment – I had a negative attitude towards running. That, in turn, makes me feel stressed; and it affects more than just my brain.
“Ongoing stress [like 16 to 20 weeks of marathon training] can really affect your nervous system, causing increases in cortisol levels and changing testosterone levels,” Siik says. According to the American Psychological Association, that can cause a domino effect of other physical problems or serious health conditions, including anxiety, muscle pain, and a weakened immune system.
In fact, a small 2013 study published in NeuroImmunoModulation revealed that recreational marathoners who experienced high levels of perceived stress, anxiety, and worry were more susceptible to the decreased immunity that’s commonly experienced during long bouts of physical training. And a 2012 study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that chronic psychological stress actually slows muscle recovery after a bout of resistance exercise.
“Stress around running [can be] a painful cycle,” Siik says. But that cycle can be broken. The key is figuring out what’s prompting your currently negative attitude towards running, and taking active steps to adjust it. Here’s how.
“Running is, by definition, a sort of stressor on the body,” says Kate F. Hays, PhD, sports psychologist and director of The Performing Edge in Toronto. That can be a good thing – until injuries start plaguing you. When that happens, you have two choices: scale back and treat the problem appropriately, or power through because you’re damned if you’re going to miss that PB oppo.
Choosing the latter means it’ll be easy to shift into a resentful attitude. But the way to make running a positive stress is to follow a plan that is effective for your body at that particular time, Hays says.
One way to do that: pay attention to how your body feels when you’re not running, Siik suggests. How do you feel when you get out of bed in the morning? Is it different from days when you do run? How about sitting through a movie – are you unable to get through it without having to stretch?
These things can help you find your injury culprit; and once you have it, an attitude adjustment can take place. Siik recommends coming up with a new running goal to alleviate the problem. “Maybe that’s reducing mileage, doing some strength-training, or running on a treadmill for a couple of weeks,” he says. Doing so can actually be fun and enlightening, and it reduces stress because you have actionable steps to fix what’s causing you to associate pain with your kays, he adds.
Signing up for a big race is the easy part, but finding the time to train properly is hard. “Not having enough time makes it feel like an obligation, rather than a stress reliever,” says Jeffrey Brown, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of The Runner’s Brain. That can fuel negative emotions – because, hello, we’re not all pros here. If you’re not being paid to run, it shouldn’t feel like something you’re being forced to do.
If it is, then Brown says you need to decide if you have time to run, and strategically eliminate barriers that are getting in the way of your sweat time. Maybe it takes too much time to cook a meal, clean up, and get a run in. A viable solution could be trying a healthy meal-delivery service, or blocking out a few hours on Sundays to meal-prep for the week. Solving problems in other areas of your life may ultimately help change your attitude towards running, so the thought of hill intervals won’t seem so daunting.
When your goals are influenced by others, you may end up forgetting why you’re even running in the first place. Peer pressure happens everywhere, and the running community is no exception. This can lead to stress or boredom, because your training can start to feel like another tedious thing to cross off the to-do list, rather than something that brings you joy.
“Many runners hit a ‘monotony wall’ when they continue to repeat training for the same type of race,” Siik explains. (Like, say, going for a second marathon, instead of switching to a 10K to zero in on speed over endurance.) “I think that runners are explorers by nature; so when you lose that feeling of exploration, things can fall flat, and your attitude becomes just that: flat.”
Before you sign on the dotted line, Brown suggests really analysing why you’re running. “Social goals are fine, but it may not be sufficient for motivating you throughout,” he says. If your heart isn’t in it, or your busy schedule makes it so difficult to train that you dread future kays, consider switching to a different distance or trying a new race format (mud run, anyone?) to rediscover your sense of adventure.
Time for a Break?
“For many, running is about identity, so stepping away – even if it is stressful – isn’t easy,” says Brown. The experts say:
Give running a rest
– but not completely. “Try a 15-minute jog once a week,” Siik suggests. “This will make it easier to jump back in when you feel ready, and make you hungry for more.”
Aside from the physical benefits, Hays says yoga can teach you to be present. “So much of running is outcome-focused; but the essence of yoga is, ‘What is happening with me now?’ ” she says. That can help you adjust your attitude.