In an ideal world running is an escape from the stresses of everyday life. But in reality, if you’re gearing up for a big event as race day draws near running can start to feel more like a chore than a stress reliever. So how do you keep pre-race anxiety at bay and ensure you rock up to the start line feeling refreshed and ready to run?
Anxiety can be debilitating and affect every area of life. But simple relaxation techniques can help combat stress and relieve the pressure, leaving you free to run. Try our five alternative pre-race stress relievers and release the pressure before the big day!
1. Practice yoga
If you’re struggling to relax since ramping up your training regime, consider adding yoga into the mix. A gentle, low-impact exercise, it works perfectly in conjunction with long distance running. Through yoga, you learn how to breathe deeply and effectively, and recognise where tension is in your body, which is ideal for pre-race anxiety.
‘Yoga is an excellent tool for stress relief,’ says yoga teacher Annie May Rice. ‘The focus on your breath helps to both distract your mind but also, by breathing more slowly and deeply, you take the breath from shallow quick chest breath (which can add to anxiety) into your belly, which automatically calms the nervous system.’
Yoga is also the perfect antidote to over-tired muscles. ‘Yoga will focus on lengthening and relaxing your muscles which will do your running the world of good, as you will flush out some of the lactic acid that builds up, ease stiffness and also reset your posture,’ adds Rice. ‘We hold a lot of tension in our shoulders and neck in particular, so activity relaxing these muscles will have an impact on the whole body. Finally yoga is great for some 'me' time away from everyday stresses and your marathon programme!’
READ: A runner's guide to yoga classes
2. Book a sports massage
With just a few weeks until marathon season kicks off, now is the perfect time to book a sports massage. Not only will your overworked muscles benefit from a deep tissue massage but a good rub down will release tension, dissipate lactic acid and leave you feeling relaxed and ready to take on a big event.
‘The reduction of anxiety and mediating in the stress response an athlete faces during training are among the fundamental principals of good Sports Massage Therapy,’ says Sports Massage Therapist Simon Lamb. ‘Outside of facilitating direct muscular therapy, helping an athlete create a healthy physical and emotional response to the challenge and pressures of training and racing is one of my basic aims as a therapist.'
'So often an athlete is viewed as a machine, by themselves and their support team, in which the field of emotions and their regulation gets ignored in the pursuit of training goals and mileage targets,' explains Lamb. 'The intricate relationship between an athlete’s psychological state and their physical performance is, I believe, the true cause of fatigue, pain and performance anxiety during races. This distress directly affects and manifests within the evolving musculature of the athlete’s body. The problem the athlete faces is that a one-time muscular defence can lead to chronic tensions and depressive episodes that are then suppressed again and again in the aim to reach peak training or race fitness.’
Regular sports massage during race preparation is an ideal way to interrupt this often-negative pattern. ‘Massage is now acknowledged as being highly beneficial in reducing anxiety, depression and stress. In chronic, long-term stressful situations, such as training for a marathon, sports massage can help regulate the over-production of stress hormones and their saturation within the body, allowing for an environment where the athlete can relax, enhancing the likelihood of increased parasympathetic hormones production, which in turn, can provide the athlete's body with an enhanced state for adaption and repair.’
3. Live in the moment
You may have heard the term mindfulness bandied about of late and dismissed it as the latest fad. But in terms of stress and anxiety management, mindfulness is actually one of the simplest and yet most effective steps you can take to defuse an overactive mind, allowing you to focus on your PB dreams.
‘Mindfulness meditation has become a huge industry, but essentially it just involves you carving out some time and focusing on slowing your thoughts down, creating some stillness within yourself,’ says psychotherapist, life coach and counsellor Hilda Burke. ‘I find the easiest and simplest way to do this is just to focus on your breath - taking some long deep breaths in and out. When you get distracted, just keep focusing on the breath, letting thoughts just drift by you. A regular meditation practice can help to ground you when anxious thoughts threaten your performance and, more crucially, your training.’
‘The stress and pressure of competition, and knowing you’ve only got one shot to give it your best, can cause the amygdala in our brain to go into overdrive and get the anxiety hormones racing,’ says meditation teacher Will Williams. ‘By meditating in advance, you can help calm down the activation of the amygdala so that by the time you get to the event, your sleep is much more peaceful, and you can wake up feeling energised and motivated.'
'Overall, finding any technique that will reduce your performance anxiety is going to have a significant effect on your running time, and indeed your enjoyment of the race,’ he added.
‘There has been a very interesting trend of elite athletes using mindfulness as a way to gain an advantage,’ says Rohan Gunatillake, creator of mindfulness app Buddhify. ‘A good example is the Seattle Seahawks (winners of the Superbowl in 2014), who have a mindfulness programme to help them be present and perform in high-pressure situations. But even a regular runner knows that mindset is key. If you feel like going out, it's easier to get into a rhythm but if you really don't feel like training then it is going to be so much harder. Just look at your own experience. On the days when your performance is really good, what is your mind state like?’
It also helps to keep your attention on the physicality of running. 'Filling our awareness with the sensations mean there is less room for difficult thoughts to come in,’ explains Gunatillake. ‘Through mindfulness we become more aware of how our mind and its patterns work and that awareness allows us to be more in control rather than just pushed around by our habits. It grows our ability to be present to what is actually happening rather than what we think is happening. Finally, it lets us be gentle with ourselves so that if we miss our target we won’t beat ourselves up.’
Download the app buddhify.com for guided meditations on the move.
READ: How to use running as meditation
4. Discover hypnotherapy
One great way to ease a restless mind is to tap into your unconscious one. If you’re really worried about the task at hand and anxious about race day, consider hypnotherapy to pave the way.
‘Anxiety is worry and nervousness about a future event. A lot of anxiety is caused by the uncertainty we have about what will happen and how we'll handle things if they don't go to plan,’ says hypnotherapist and anxiety expert Chloe Brotheridge. ‘Hypnotherapy helps us to retrain our subconscious (which are our automatic) thoughts and feelings. It can help by boosting your confidence in your abilities, helping you to think about the race in a really positive and optimistic way and calming you down mentally so that you can approach it in a relaxed and clear-headed way. It's also useful for helping us to be more present. Anxiety exists when we over-think the future, but in the present moment things are (almost) always OK.’
So how does it work? ‘When we have hypnotherapy the conscious mind quietens down and we enter a 'learning state' where were become open to suggestions at a subconscious level,’ explains Brotheridge. ‘We're also more able to take on board the positive images that we imagine and let go of any limiting beliefs that may have been ingrained when we were younger.’
Download a free relaxation MP3 from www.calmer-you.com or visit www.easywaytochange.co.uk to book a hypnotherapy session.
5. Visualise the finish line
If your fears are starting to override your thoughts, simple visualisation techniques can help get you across that finish line in one piece.
'I suggest mentally rehearsing the race in your mind,' says Brotheridge. 'Use all of your senses to imagine what you'll see, feel, think, what you'll look like and what you'll do. Imagine yourself feeling confident and relaxed and see yourself handling any issues that arise during the race. This way, you'll be preparing your mind to feel confident, no matter what race day brings.’
‘Visualising a goal can really help our bodies to imagine it and then to go and make that a reality,' agrees Burke. 'When you imagine it, really hold it in your physical body - this physical sensation will help to get you through the points where your endurance is being tested! To achieve a physically challenging goal such as completing a marathon, you need your mind on side as much as you need your body. So it makes sense to put some time and effort into training it.’
If you find visualisation a struggle, consider creating a real-life vision board. ‘I encourage my clients who are aiming to do something they feel is a stretch to put together a collage of inspiring images,’ says Burke. ‘So for a jobseeker it could be a pastiche of desired workplace images or outfits that they could see themselves wearing in their dream job. It's a good idea to do some meditation first (to clear the mind of clutter), then a short visualisation. After this, leaf through a bundle of magazines and pull out any images that resonate with your goal - in this case running and completing a marathon.’
READ: Think yourself strong