By David Henry, CTS Ultrarunning Coach
This run wasn’t different from any others, as far as I could tell. Another normal loop on a normal day, just putting in the miles. I was in the midst of a section of quiet road in rural Oregon I’d run dozens of times when out of the side yard of a house next to the road, two dogs came running full on and didn’t look like they wanted to play. With the owners looking on from the yard, the dogs got within inches of my shins, gnashing their teeth. I thought for sure they would tear into me at any moment. Eventually a woman came out of the house and called the dogs off (apparently she carried much more authority with the dog than the two grown men in the yard watching me nearly get my shins shredded). Though I came away unscathed, the experience really jarred my psyche. There wasn’t anything particularly unique about it and it surely wasn’t the first time I’d encountered aggressive dogs on a run, but I found it hard to shake the experience, for the next few months in particular. It got me thinking more about anxiety, both acute and general.
Where do our running-related fears and anxieties come from? Are the fear and anxiousness grounded in anything rational? What about the actual risks that are valid and present in the mountains and more rugged environments? In other words, what is real and what is the amygdala just going into overdrive?
Our brains have developed to perceive and respond to potential risks as a means of survival. However, in modern times, other than potentially getting run over by the occasional bike messenger, car, or bus, we don’t typically face frequent threats to our lives and well being. In place of the real and acute threats to our ancestors’ lives – like being eating by a predator – we now often experience a sort of background, ongoing, and nameless anxiety. This stress isn’t necessarily in response to physical threat, but rather perceived emotional or relational risks inherent in certain actions and situations. I guess now I need to add random harassment from dogs to the list. (For an in-depth look at much of the science behind this, I’d recommend Robert Sapolsky’s Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.)
One important thing to remember is our brain doesn’t care if the risk from a certain situation is actually grounded in fact or reality. Perception of risk or threat is all that matters to our nervous system, and unfortunately, your body and brain can mistakenly perceive otherwise non-threatening environments – such as the workplace or a difficult conversation with a friend – as a real stressor. The rationale behind a perceived threats is often complex and woven into the fabric of our relationships and surroundings, filtered through our personal experiences, and affected by the tools we have to process and navigate our environment.
You might be thinking, “Great, now you’ve made me anxious just reading this! What can we do about it?” While there is no panacea for all anxiety or fear, I have found some practices that have helped me and been recommended by people much smarter than me, including performance psychologist Michael Gervais (who’s podcast Finding Mastery is well worth subsribing to). What stands out to me about high-performing individuals is that, unlike what you might expect, they also experience fear and anxiety on a regular basis, just like we do. The difference is that instead of letting it become debilitating, they find ways to harness those responses to actually improve performance!
Often times anxiety about an event or situation can simply be an indication that you really care about it. This is a good thing! Gervais encourages athletes to focus on turning this anxiety into excitement and the realization they have the tools to rise to the occasion. This, he says, helps athletes develop the belief they will come through when the moment calls for it. This is the only way people can actually cross the threshold to jump into Normandy in WWII, step into the boxing ring for that championship fight, or toe the line of the 100-mile race. You have to believe that somehow you’ll pull through or you’d never take that first step!
Some of the more concrete practices I utilize for both performance anxiety and more nebulous general anxiety are:
Break it down
Break potentially worrisome experiences down into smaller chunks and act only on the first chunk. If it is running a 100-mile race, try to realize that you don’t run that race all at once, but one mile at a time. Focus on what you need to do for that mile, then the next one when it comes. Try not to worry about how you are going to perform at mile 85 while standing in line at the porta potty pre-race.
Find the Source
Do the inner work required to come to terms with the underlying “Why?” behind the fear or anxiety. Ask: “What do I really fear from in this scenario?”, “What if it does go wrong, then what?” Fair warning, this can be an extremely taxing exercise! Especially for those of us who pursue activities in rugged environments like high alpine 100-mile races or technical Skyrunning events, because, ultimately, this leads us to examine our own mortality and come to terms with the fact the risk for injury or death is real – even if it’s not necessarily common – in those environments. The risks are real enough I believe they need to be faced at some point if one wants to do continue to do hard things with full and mature engagement, otherwise we will hold back and potentially not even go for it at all. You don’t free solo El Capitan, like Alex Honnold did earlier this year without coming to terms with the fact you may die. That still didn’t stop Alex from the attempt and, actually, doing that inner work is most likely what enabled it to happen at all. Composure comes from contemplation, not the lack of fear or brash, heroic risk taking, like many believe.
Lean In and Learn
The last thing I’d suggest is rather than avoidance, lean into and learn about the things that make you the most afraid and anxious. On a lighter note than my previous point, if you are anxious about puking in your first 100-miler and having that derail your race, then read up on it, and find out what to do if it happens (for a master class in puking see CTS coach AJW’s now classic performance at the 2009 Leadville 100). Anxiety usually lurks in the unknown. The more we learn the less mystery there is about what we actually need to be concerned about, which is how you develop a healthy risk-assessment process. When athletes refuse to learn about their fears, thos with strong imaginations are able to conjure up plenty of nightmares for otherwise fairly safe environments and activities.
Don’t let a few badly behaved dogs, rude people or past failures limit your potential today and in the future. Embrace fear and anxiety, especially leading up to an event or challenging situation, so your body and mind can fully engage and lean into what will most likely end up being a positive growth experience.