Pavlov’s runner: conditioned to fear the run

What’s your running nemesis? Do you bonk without regular energy gels or struggle to regulate your hydration? Do hills make you crawl? Or do long hours on the road bore you to tears? I know you have one … we all do. In fact, I have several, depending on the run, my health and mood. But I’ve come to realize that they all stem from one phantom nemesis – a fabrication of my overactive mind: anxiety over the uncertain.

The longer the run, the greater potential for disaster. It’s not that I dislike running; au contraire, it’s my oxygen, my water, my heroin. Yet still, I often dwell on innumerable, unlikely scenarios of possible running catastrophes. Will this be the run where that nagging tension in my achilles develops into a tendon rupture? Will this be the run that I finally puncture my foot and find myself stranded barefoot and bloody, miles from home? Of course, these fears are irrational and have yet to come true. Every run has its highs and lows, and in reality the highs almost always outweigh the lows. fearconditioningYet, just as a mouse can be easily conditioned to fear a neutral tone, just one or two particularly traumatic running experiences can make us unnecessarily fear a run. Since my recent metatarsal stress fracture, I’ve repeatedly convinced myself – sometimes to the point of tears – that I refractured my foot. In reality, a world apart from my hyper-paranoid thoughts, my feet remain strong and healthy and have carried me through countless glorious miles.

We’re all familiar with the purported mind-body connection, but few of us consider the power of our attitude on our running performance. Reflect back and you just might notice an intriguing association between your mental state and the quality of your runs. Thinking back to my most distressing injuries – an achilles tendon tear, stress fracture, peroneal tendonitis – they’ve all occurred during periods of excessive stress, anxiety or exhaustion. The body most certainly struggles to properly recover and repair itself during times of fatigue or physical trauma, but we shouldn’t overlook the concomitant influence of our psychological state. Sure. This may sound like psycho-BS. But there’s evidence that the relationship between mental and physical is real and biologically founded. Indeed, stress hormones such as cortisol are known to do real bodily harm, such as impair bone and collagen formation, increase blood pressure and weaken the immune system. Within a given run, simply focusing on the joy of the present moment and appreciating each lone step can minimize stress and counteract its negative effects, by calming an anxious mind, relaxing tense muscles and allowing the body to move fluidly and naturally.

runninginfearOf course, bad runs and injuries occasionally happen and a touch of apprehension might be warranted … but ultimately, it can only work against you. If you’re going to fracture your foot, worrying about it will not prevent it. Approaching a run with fear can only accomplish two things: 1) alter your physiology or biomechanics in ways that may actually exacerbate a bad run, or 2) so strongly grip you that you do not even attempt the run. I have experienced both.

Rather than dreading the pain you might feel from an incipient injury, or running through fatigue, embrace each step and be mindful of the distinct sensations they carry. If pain arises, it will likely dissipate. If it persists, allow yourself to end the run and be content that you didn’t allow your fear to prevent you from at least trying. If you feel great, bask in the endorphins, but acknowledge that they too are fleeting. Running is a journey with both infinite opportunities and challenges to conquer. You can fear the obstacles or indulge in the adventure – the choice is yours.

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One thought on “Pavlov’s runner: conditioned to fear the run

  1. […] a related note–>  Pavlov’s runner: Conditioned to fear the run.  What’s […]

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