Nathaniel Baker couldn’t be more satisfied with the results of his race training for the upcoming New York City marathon in November. He’s in the best shape of his life. He’s lost 10 pounds since the beginning of the year. And the man who could barely jog 20 minutes three years earlier can now push through grueling 10-mile runs.
But he’s made sacrifices. He plans his social life around his workout schedule, even missing out on important events, such as friends’ birthday parties, to fit in runs. “I feel guilty when I take a day off,” says Baker, 41, who works in financial media in New York. “I’ll be at some rooftop bar at a work event eating fattening appetizers, and all I can think is ‘I should be running.’” He even skipped his weekend summer outings to Fire Island because the towns don’t have long enough running paths. “I knew that training wasn’t supposed to be fun, but I think my anxiety has made me a little obsessed,” he admits.
Not the Good Kind
“You can cross a critical threshold, and the anxiety becomes paralyzing.”
A little worry about your workouts is helpful to keep you on track to reach your training goals. It’s that little voice that says, “You’re so not ready for this tri! You better get in an extra long swim this week or you’re gonna kill yourself on race day.” But sports psychologists warn that a little can go a long way. “If someone is getting anxious to prepare for a marathon or big race, there’s a certain amount that’s motivating,” explains Harris Straytner, PhD, sports psychologist in New York and Westchester County. “But you can cross a critical threshold, and the anxiety becomes paralyzing.”
Too much can sap your energy and create a stress response that hurts your performance and health. One recent study found that psychological stress makes it harder for your muscles to recover following resistance exercise. Another study of recreational marathon runners who experienced high levels of perceived stress, anxiety and worry found they had decreased immunity four weeks before the race. And a weakened immune system means a higher risk of contracting the colds and viruses that could sideline athletes on their big day.
Race Day Meltdown
“I was creating too much stress for something that should be a stress relief.”
Anxiety can manifest in other ways, too. Michele Gonzalez, 32, got herself so worked up over trying to make a 3:10 time for the New Jersey Marathon in 2013 that she felt physically nauseous before the event. “I was shaking. I couldn’t eat anything. I’d never experienced nerves like this before,” she says. “My husband kept saying, ‘Calm down. It’s just a race.’” But Gonzalez had written about wanting to make her goal time on her blog NYC Running Mama and felt pressure to report back good news.
“I had bordered on overtraining and felt wiped. I was so focused on that time that anything slower would have felt like a failure,” she says. When she reached the half-way mark, she was on track. Then everything fell apart at mile 17. “When I started to slow down and knew my time wouldn’t happen, I gave up. I just quit,” she says.
Love Your Butterflies
It’s normal to have anxiety about something you’ve never done before. The key is deciding whether you’re going to interpret your butterflies as part of the excitement of competition or a feeling of dread that you won’t do well, explains Jim Afremow, PhD, author of The Champion’s Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train and Thrive. He recommends thinking of a race as a fancy practice.
“It’s the same activity you’ve been doing for days. A competition is just a special, fun day. Let’s not make it bigger than life,” he says.
Take Back Control
“The element of choice is intrinsic to people enjoying their training.”
For athletes who feel their training has spun out of control, Sam Zizzi, PhD, professor of sport and exercise psychology at West Virginia University, tries to help them remember they have choices. “I say, ‘You decided to run this damn marathon on your own. Is this still working for you? Can we interact with this training schedule in a different way?” he explains. Maybe that means changing up the structure or adding in more cross-training and a greater variety of workouts. “The element of choice is intrinsic to people enjoying their training.”
Or he recommends an extreme solution: “If the athlete really wants to remove the anxiety, then they can stop training altogether,” he says. The idea of not doing it at all can be enough to help people change their perspective and remember they’re in charge.
Pleasure Over Pressure
Besides hurting your performance, workout anxiety has longer-term consequences. You could start to view fitness as an obligation and lose interest in a pursuit that’s good for you. “It makes it that much harder to finish your training and causes people to disengage,” adds Zizzi. Eventually they say, ‘I don’t want to do this any more.’”
For Baker, he’s not sure he wants to do another marathon again, but he’s given himself permission to immerse himself fully in his training for this one, even if it dominates his entire life for a few months. “I’ve got to do 200 miles in September,” he says. “I think this is one time when I can be a little crazy.”
Gonzalez, on the other hand, regards her marathon meltdown as a sign that she needed to slow down. “Running is a hobby and is supposed to be fun,” she says. “I was creating too much stress for something that should be a stress relief.” While training for the upcoming Potomac River Run Marathon in November, she’s focused on improving the time of her individual runs rather than preparing to meet a rigid finish time. “It’s going great,” she says. “I’m able to enjoy the entire process again and celebrate my finish as an accomplishment of months of hard work, regardless of what the clock says.”
Originally posted September 2014. Updated on September 2016.