At one point or another, every endurance athlete has felt some level of anxiety over some element of their training or racing. While the word “anxiety” is a term that many people may not want to embrace as a feeling/emotion that they experience, the truth of the matter is this: If you are a human, you will feel anxiety at some point in your life. And you know what? It is VERY okay. It just means you’re a normal human.
Along similar lines, anxiety levels tend to rise for athletes (and humans in general!) when something is different than what they expect. Change makes people feel uncertain. Think about it: What happens when a race announces something like a course change or a change in what will be offered/available on-course? Social media comments go wild, texting parties ensue, and everyone dives in to discuss what the change is, what it might mean, why the race should keep it the way it was, and on and on. Very, very rarely does a change like that get announced with no response from athletes.
Why is this? Because the change instantly causes at least some base level of anxiety in many, many athletes. And this anxiety is caused by the fact that something is not the same as what they expected and/or planned for. Though many of us intellectually understand that change is not necessarily a bad thing, change does provoke a bit of a fear response in most people. If something is changing, we instinctively sense danger because we might be losing something. More specifically, we instinctively fear that we may be losing control of something.
As humans, we like things that are known and that have been around for a while. A very interesting study showed the same painting to two different groups of people. One group was told that the painting was made in 1905; the other was told it was made in 2005. The group who was told that the painting was made in 1905 rated it as more aesthetically pleasing than the group who was told that it was newer. Simply put: The longer something is around, the more we instinctively value it and perceive it as safe.
But all is not lost! We can implement strategies and tools to help make our brains feel safe. When you encounter uncertainty in training or in racing, stop yourself in your thought train. As you feel yourself starting to come up with all of the ways the change or uncertainty is scary and/or different from what you expected or are used to, do this instead:
Look for what is the same.
It’s honestly rare that we encounter a situation or scenario that we are absolutely, positively unequipped to manage. Most situations have at least some thread of commonality running through them. So when you encounter a situation that you recognize is causing you to feel scared or anxious, don’t zero in on what is different about this new thing or condition you are encountering. Instead, look for the things in that situation that you recognize, the things that are similar to your previous experiences.
By doing this, you start to show your brain that you have the tools necessary in your toolbelt to handle this adversity. Instead of seeing the situation at-hand as scary, you start to see it as different, yet manageable. And as you start to identify more elements of the new situation that resemble what you’ve encountered in the past, it starts to feel not so scary after all. You realize that you know more about it than you recognized at first. And remember: Knowing is better than not knowing.
Here are just some examples of the ways you can put this into action:
If the weather on race day is not ideal, recall when you’ve encountered one or more of those same conditions in your training.
If there is a course change, remember a time when you had to deviate from your planned course in a workout. (For any reason, a pit stop, closed road, busy pathway, etc.)
If a race announces that they will be changing on-course offerings, research those new offerings. If needed, carry your own nutrition and/or hydration with you on race day so you have the same thing that you trained with.
If a workout comes up on your schedule that seems intimidating, look back on your past workouts. Chances are that you completed a workout that was relatively similar that enabled you to build the skills, technique, and capacity to take on this new workout.
When you’re confronted by change or uncertainty, don’t dwell on what is different. Instead, look for what is the same and you’ll likely realize that you’re ready to take on any adversity that comes your way.
Coach Laura Henry
Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.