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Running & Anxiety

running-apps_0I’m a runner. I wasn’t always a runner.  No. When I was a kid, I was overweight, as I’ve shared many times before. I wasn’t just chubby, but full on obese.  As you can imagine, not only did that contribute to my non-runnerness, but it also made me have a real disdain for exercise, and especially running.  It was uncomfortable on my overloaded knees, it was hard to breath during, my stomach and chest giggled and flopped around uncomfortably, my legs rubbed together, my ankles hurt, etc.  But that was all the unenjoyable stuff that happened during running.  What happened leading up to it was different, but equally bad.  I’d feel anxious. Not anxious in the jumpy sense, but in the anxiety sense. A much stronger feeling.  The anticipation of the impending bout of running scared me – I’d look around for ways to get out of it, desperately trying to keep from having to run.  I’d see the faces of those who were about to see me run, and picture how they’d judge and make fun of me (as was often the case when I was fat).  I’d think about whoever I was about to lose to (i.e. opponents) and lose for (i.e. coach and team) if it was a race or a sport (the setting was often sleep away summer camp, so there was a lot of competition and sport from soccer to baseball to a twice-a-summer, mandatory track meet).  I would look at the sun and feel the heat, and worry if I wouldn’t be able to finish due to exhaustion or overheating (I had once woken up in a lake after collapsing at the finish line during an 880 meter race in temps over 100 degrees that pitted all the fat kids in camp against each other…for a laugh for the onlookers, but not so for the participants who were in pain and humiliated).

So, all of this added fuel to the fire of anxiety that I’d feel literally every time I would have to run.  I felt it in school sports, I felt it when going somewhere with friends where we might have to run to catch a bus, etc.  I loved skiing and was on the high school ski team, but I’d feel it every day during dry land practice because we might, and often did, have to run.

Anxiety is a tricky thing. It doesn’t just go away when you can see there’s no rational grounds for it. No, it operates in a part of your brain that’s tied to survival, and isn’t something your conscious brain can easily shut off.  That part of your brain learns to go into fight or flight mode when it feels threatened, and repeated similar threats teach your brain to go to this place faster, easier, and more resiliently. You can, with time and training, get there, but the response is out of most people’s control because most people haven’t trained their mind to stop this automatic response to given stresses.

So, where does that leave me today?  Well, I weight less than I did when I was 12, I’m in good shape, and run regularly. I’m not a bullet, but I’m faster than most people I know (save for one VERY quick friend named Matt who has a good two minutes per mile lead on me). And, most importantly, I truly, genuinely love running.  Not ‘like’. Love.

Yet every time I head out to run, and most of the time I’m getting ready to, I feel the anxiety within me. My hands shake a little sometimes. My head hurts. My heart beats a bit faster (I often have a heart rate monitor on while getting ready since it goes beneath my layers, so I can see the elevated beating). I feel cold or shiver a little, regardless of the temperature. Basically, I have several physical signs of anxiety. They all disappear within my first few strides, and then I’m good for the run, but it is so reliable and ironic that it happens.  Reliable in the sense that it always happens, whether I’m doing a race, a short treadmill mile, or a slow run on a gorgeous day with no time pressure.  I don’t feel that with cycling, even when I’m in an event and should feel it.  No, running triggers a trained anxiety response in my body, and demonstrates to me the power of this deep, subconscious mind over our rational, intelligent mind.

As I say, it can be conquered, and I never let it stop me or slow me down. I just don’t enjoy the 20-30 minutes before a run as a result of it. Now that I’m fully aware of it, I can better manage it and work to shut it off. Writing this blog post is part of that process.

So, how does your automatic response to fitness and exercise help or hurt you? Are you aware of it and why it is that way? Are you able to show justification for it to not be that way? The mind is a powerful thing, for better or worse. Harnessing that power to work you instead of against you is so crucial to enlighten.your.body.

About bryan falchuk

bryan falchuk is the founder of newbodi.es, a certified personal trainer, behavior change specialist and the best-selling author of "Do a Day". bryan coaches people on their whole health - the physical, mental and emotional combination of wellness that we need to thrive and change our lives.

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