In my private practice, I regularly help endurance athletes cope with pre-race anxiety. The anticipation and excitement of finally putting your hard work to the test can, for many, cause butterflies, jitters, and a negative mindset. It’s also common for runners, cyclists and triathletes to seek help because they dread their next big challenging workout. Just seeing the hard interval run, hill repeats, or speed session on their training calendar can turn an exciting week of training into a week full of fitful sleep and obsessive worry.
In my own marathon training, I regularly face challenging workouts that push me far out of my comfort zone. In fact, after finishing writing this article, I am scheduled to run, by myself, a 5k distance at 5k pace. Yikes! In some ways, I’m no different than any of our Movement Sports Magazine readers. I have been thinking about this one all week. I have been working on noticing where I am focusing. I tell myself over and over that in order to see the results I want to see on race day I must get out there and see what I can do. I also remind myself that my coach, who knows me best, believes in me.
For all of you workout worriers, here’s the bottom line: The difference between a successful workout and a sub-par session has as much to do with the mentality you bring to it as it does anything else. Of course, it’s only natural for your mind to drift towards the future. Are you someone though who focuses too much on how you will feel after a disappointing result? If you follow the tips below, you can begin to see how to build the mental discipline you need to steer clear of the negative thinking and embrace the challenge.
1. Remind yourself that learning to manage anxiety before a workout will teach you to manage similar thoughts/feelings before, and during a big race. As Olympic gold and silver medalist Allyson Felix said “I always get nervous. If I wasn’t nervous it would be weird…it’s part of the routine and I accept it.” You need to begin to see that your nerves is part of the competition picture and not a sign of weakness.
2. Tell yourself that facing your fears will only make you stronger. One way to face them is to have a mantra (i.e., I got this; this will not kill you; stay curious) that can be your go-to when you mentally start to feel like you are struggling. I also tell athletes, as my colleague Dr. Mitchell Greene likes to say, to focus on courage over confidence. Waiting for a false sense of positivity isn’t what you need – you need to see that your hard workout is supposed to be challenging, and only through getting out of your comfort zone will you grow as an athlete.
3. The best athletes focus on the things that are in their control rather than those things outside their control. You cannot control the weather, the direction of the wind, or the quality of your GPS signal. You are better off focusing on things you can control, like what you eat before your workout, what small goals you can set for your workout, whether you train with a friend or solo, and if you choose to focus on the gains you will make rather than what might go wrong.
4. Make sure that you set some process (rather than outcome) goals for your workout. For example, rather than simply focusing on the pace for your splits, set goals to repeat your mantra when the going gets tough, to take in fuel every 40 minutes, or to make sure you run at your own pace rather than trying to keep up with a friend or teammate. Focusing on the process rather than on the outcome often helps reduce anxiety and improve performance. Even better, write these process goals down and look at them before you head out.
Finally, you will have good days, bad days and make plenty of mistakes. As I head off for my tough workout, I remind myself that I will use this day’s training as a learning exercise, so I know where to continue to try improve. I’m going to be courageous. Now, I’s your turn. Go get it!
Dr. Stacey Ginesin is a clinical and sport psychologist at Greenepsych Sport Psychology in Haverford, PA. Dr. Ginesin enjoys working with athletes on maximizing performance while keeping the fun in competing. She is also a marathon runner, running coach, and mom. For more information on Dr. Ginesin, go to greenepsych.com