TrailRX: Advice For Workout Anxiety

What to do if you get nervous before big workouts.

Photo: Getty Images/Cavan Images RF

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In our new TrailRx column, we’ll attempt to answer your burning, embarrassing and thought-provoking trail running questions. Whether you’re looking for advice on gear, training or the best Oreo flavor (birthday cake) we’ll have a prescription for you.

Should I take Advil before my run?

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like Advil and Aleve can be good and bad, it just depends on when and how you use them. You should not take them before or during runs because the risks to your kidneys and stomach lining are too high. If you can’t run without NSAIDs then wait to run until you can. If something hurts to the point of considering taking an NSAID, that’s a pretty good sign that you might benefit from a rest day. 

There’s often a temptation to push through niggles until they become full-blown injuries. But, choosing to take a day or three off now is always better than months off down the road. NSAID’s can be great for soft tissue injuries when you’re not running by lowering inflammation. And if the pain doesn’t subside after three days off and three times daily NSAID dose (always consult your doctor) then you know it’s time to consult an expert.


RELATED: When In Doubt, Take Three Days Off

Any advice for a runner who gets nervous before workouts?

To answer this question, I think it can be helpful to get curious about where the anxiety is coming from.

Are you anxious about the physical or mental discomfort associated with a tough workout? If that’s the case, then it can help to understand and practice mental toughness. I like writer Brad Stulberg’s definition of toughness as being “the ability to make a conscious decision based on one’s chosen values to persist or change course in the midst of a challenging situation. Another way to think about it is learning to respond to distress thoughtfully instead of immediately reacting.”

Set realistic expectations with yourself going into a workout. If you’re executing the workout correctly, it’s likely that you won’t feel totally comfortable. That’s good thing! Re-frame the workout as an opportunity to practice workout through discomfort, and getting comfortable being uncomfortable. 

Practice positive self-talk to avoid over-identifying with the discomfort. That could look like telling yourself, “this is starting to feel uncomfortable and difficult, but that’s okay because I knew it would, and that discomfort will help me grow as a runner. This discomfort is essential to the process, and unavoidable. I am going to be okay.” 

Work on creating space between what you’re feeling, and how you respond to it. You can feel uncomfortable without stopping your workout because of it.

RELATED: Redefine Your Relationship With Pre-Race Nerves

Or, are you anxious because of expectations or pressure you might be inadvertently putting on yourself?

Stress is the part of the work that helps you grow. Maintaining a specific effort (stress) level during a workout makes it productive. What becomes counterproductive is when we set specific expectations (pressure) on ourselves.  Overvaluing the outcome to the detriment of the intent can look like going into a workout with specific expectations around what your pace will be, and quitting or disengaging when those expectations aren’t met. (Pro tip: an imperfect but completed workout beats a failed attempt at imperfection every time).

Approaching workouts from a perspective that values the outcome (“I need to run xyz pace to feel good about this workout”) rather than the process (“As long as I stay engaged and keep going, this workout will be productive no matter what the numbers say”) is demoralizing, and shifts the focus away from what matters most.

RELATED: Here’s How To Build Mental Toughness

 Removing the pressure of expectations (“This workout is going to feel good the whole time” or “I am going to run this fast”) and focusing on the process (“I will manage my discomfort and do my best, even though my best might change day to day”) will help relieve some of that anxiety. Giving yourself the grace to have a few bad workouts could lead to a higher frequency of truly great workouts. 

Accepting discomfort and using tools to manage it as well as removing external pressures will go a long way towards making workouts feel less anxiety-inducing  The road to amazing athletic breakthroughs is paved with crappy workouts. No one run is a referendum on your abilities as an athlete, and taking that pressure off can ease anxiety, and result in better performance. 

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