Running You Ragged

John Buzzard was a seriously stressed man. His work involved long hours and punishing travel. He was married with three small, hyperactive children, who all demanded a lot from him when he was at home.

Living in a busy London suburb, he was always battling against traffic to make it into work on time. And worse still, 44-year-old Buzzard was gaining a few unwanted pounds every year.

So to reduce his stress level and improve his health, he started running. And it was practically a magical experience. He ran first thing in the mornings and felt great afterwards. The calming feeling that the running induced would usually stay with him all day, and he continued in this vein for many months. Running was Buzzard’s number-one stress-reliever, and he clung to it as a lifeline.

But at some point, after about a year of running, something changed. He’d become obsessive about his training and his racing: if he missed a morning run, he’d fret about it for the rest of the day. And races were worse: if a business trip forced Buzzard to miss the race he’d been training for, he’d fume about it.

So just a year after he’d started, running had become a stress producer rather than a stress reducer.

Don’t let this happen to you; and to help ensure that it doesn’t, we have provided eight strategies, all based on real-life scenarios, to help you make sure that it doesn’t.

Stress Producer: Sharing a busy road

Most of us live in urban or suburban environments where streets are the norm for running. Streets, though, were made for cars, and running on them can be stressful. The myriad of cerebral questions that assault you can easily increase your stress levels: is that driver going to turn without seeing me?; will he be able to stop in time?; if I speed up, can I make the light before it changes? This is just the tip of the iceberg for stress-creating scenarios.

Solution: To find a safe, quiet, off-road running spot to visit once a week, and more often if possible. It could be a trail, a golf course, or even the football pitch down the street. It doesn’t have to be an idyllic, meandering trail in the Pennines. It simply needs to be a place where there’s no traffic.

Running on the roads is a lot better than not running at all, but it does come with certain built-in stresses. Try to find a soothing, safe running place you can utilise as frequently as possible, even if you have to drive to get there. The end usually justifies the means.



Stress Producer: Maintaining rigid performance standards

Francie Larrieu Smith, four-time American Olympian who’s been collecting national titles and setting records at distances from the 800m to the marathon for more than three decades, doesn’t need to make any apologies for her slower pace. In the last few years her age and her 30 years of running have begun to catch up with her, and she’s found the transition from running as a world-class competitive endeavour, to its relegated status as a pastime, hard to accept.

“It’s taken me a long time to be okay with not being competitive,” says Larrieu Smith. “Even past 40, I put too much pressure on myself to perform – to do this or that to get faster. It was far too stressful. I’ve learnt to accept a slower training pace.”

Since our self-image is often dependent on narrow standards of achievement, Larrieu Smith’s ability to finally let go is a lesson for us all. Her acceptance extends to her weight: “I’m a little heavier than I used to be, and I’m learning to be okay with that too,” she admits. “A lot of people get caught up with losing those last five pounds, but that has more to do with vanity than health.”

Solution: You’re a different runner at different stages of your life. The trick is to feel comfortable with the changes you experience.


Stress Producer: Pursuing perfection

Do you set yourself a tightly structured, rigorous training programme? Do you find any deviation from the routine hard to take?

If the answers are yes, then you may be suffering from a perfection complex. Certain runners do have obsessive personalities in that they feel they must do things in a perfect and highly structured way. As this is sometimes unfeasible, they often experience stress because they inevitably perceive themselves as failures.

A typical example would be someone who runs the same distance at the same pace on the same route at the same time each day, and who cannot adapt to any variable. For example, if it rains and this runner consequently runs four miles instead of six, this causes stress. And if this type of runner misses a day entirely, it’s even worse.

In extreme cases, runners will react to this by ceasing to run altogether. It’s similar to a recovering alcoholic who thinks his recovery is spoiled by one drink and so returns to abusive drinking. Many don’t realise that, in these cases, if you take five steps forward and one step back, you’re still four steps ahead.

Solution: You will enjoy running more and reap greater benefits if you stay flexible about when, where, and how fast you run. Make adjustments, fine-tune, be proactive, and most importantly, be realistic.


Stress Producer: Progressing too fast or too far too soon

There are few overnight successes in running. It usually takes years to build the endurance necessary for success. New runners, often giddy from their growing fitness, will frequently attempt to shoot for the moon right away. And inevitably, before long they’re tired, disillusioned and probably injured. At which point they say, “Maybe running’s not for me...”

Running coaches up and down the country see this all the time. People come to the track lacking stamina because they don’t train consistently throughout the rest of the week. As a result they’re not in shape to handle speedwork. When they race, their goals are out of sync – just because they’ve run on the track, they think they’re ready for a fast race, and when they don’t meet their expectations, they soon get frustrated.

Solution: Any increase in the intensity of your running – whether pace, distance or frequency – must be done in a progressive manner. Remember the old maxim: ‘Don’t increase mileage by more than 5-10 per cent a week.’


Stress Producer: Trying to be ‘Super Mum’ (or Dad)

Janis Klecker is a former Olympic marathon runner, a dentist and a mother of five young children. How could Klecker, mostly a stay-at-home mother, possibly juggle the competing needs of parenting, running and dentistry?

First she cut her dental work back to a one-day-a-week commitment. This enabled her to keep her hand in this profession at a time when dentistry can’t be her top priority.

At 38 Klecker then felt she also had to change her approach to running. She got away from competition and cut back on training intensity. “I definitely came to realise how stressful running can be, and I had to promise myself not to cross that line,” she says. “I run every morning, and it’s a real stress-reliever. It also gives me strength and resilience for when I’m with my children.” Passing up a big race in 1997 was a big step for her, and it made Klecker realise that she’d made the right adjustments in her life.

Solution: You can’t do everything – no one can. Certain times of your life will be appropriate for training hard and going for PBs. At other times, though, you’ll simply want to run for fitness and stress-relief.


Stress Producer: Running with the wrong training partner

Running partners can be soul mates who help each other to achieve amazing things; or they can become searing rivals who do more harm than good. Choosing a training companion is not unlike choosing a partner in life: you need to do it with great care, and you need to be able to adjust as circumstances change.

Be cautious, because one person will always be fitter. Discuss every session beforehand. If you’re on the track or doing some kind of quality training sessions, talk about pace beforehand and take it in turns to lead. Also, don’t run together every day.

There can also be problems when running partners get on well, but possess different running abilities. If you routinely stay together for only the first 20 minutes of an hour-long training run, your pace can be thrown out for the rest of the session. The slower of the two can also start to feel rather deflated after a while.

Solution: Communication is the key: talk about ground rules with your training partner beforehand; make sure you agree on the pace, distance and route; decide, for example, that if one of you is feeling particularly good during the run, then it’s okay for this person to go on ahead and thus avoid dragging the slower partner along.


Stress Producer: Overtraining

Most runners, regardless of ability, share a common trait that brings on stress: they push too hard, too early.

Many runners dart out the door with little concern for pacing. They run as fast as they can and are then forced to slow down because they go into oxygen debt. ‘Happy feet syndrome’, as this phenomenon is increasingly known, inevitably leads runners to become anything but ‘happy’ about their running. These runners often don’t progress in their running and end up hanging up their running shoes for good.

Even some serious athletes don’t realise how slowly they need to run on their easy days. They don’t appreciate how much rest and recovery they need. This creates a chronic glycogen deficit in the muscles, which inevitably leads to poor training sessions and sub-par races.

Many runners dismiss the idea of rest. Lacking the confidence to go easy, they need the reassurance of a hard run, and too many of them subsequently burn out or get unnecessarily injured.

Solution: Remember this training principle: to adapt to hard training and to improve, you must sprinkle in plenty of easy running – even take a day off to recharge the batteries.


Stress Producer: Poor race management

While driving to a race, you lose your directions in the depths of the countryside; you become lost, and when you finally arrive, just minutes from the start time, the car park is full and the queues at the portaloos stretch to the horizon; you rush to get your number on and have no time to warm up; you feel tight and stressed as you frantically make it to the start; and consequently your race plan has gone out the window; so too your chances of that PB. Not clever.

Solution: Racing to your potential is not just about training wisely, eating right and tapering properly. Preparation is crucial. Make sure you have clear, concise directions and know what the course is like. What about parking and toilets? Always allow more travel time than you think you’ll need. Make sure you have all the essentials: water bottle, post-race food, dry clothing, extra safety pins for your number etc. In short, eliminate any possible causes of stress. Planning ahead will enable you to get to the event on time, allow you a proper warm up, and give you the opportunity to relax and focus on the race.

Don't Worry, It Is Working...

Many new runners panic early on in their training programme because they don’t see any immediate benefits: “Why keep running if it isn’t doing anything for me?”

But it is.

Studies have conclusively shown that even within the first week of running, you’ll experience increases in leg muscle strength, aerobic capacity, blood plasma volume and cardiac output. Your mood and sleep quality will also improve.

What’s more, fat-burning will increase. From the very first run your body learns how to burn fat more efficiently. Incoming fat that would have gone into storage instead gets shifted over to the muscles. And once there, it is burned as fuel both during and after your run.