Triathlon — Overcoming the “I’m Scared to Death” Syndrome

running-advice-bugLast weekend I was walking into a transition at a local race and I overheard a common exchange. One athlete asked the other how she was feeling and the other answered her back, “I’m scared to death!” So many times I have heard this expressed — and often in exactly those words. I can almost feel the pounding heart and the sweaty skin.

courage-is-being-scared-to-deathThese words “I’m scared to death” have real power. Of course, when we say them we’re not actually scared “to death.” It’s not as if Jaws is about to surface beneath us and bite our legs off or Jason is going to jump out from behind a tree with an ax and end our races with a mortal blow. (Although these days with the Zombie runs and other themed races, it could happen!) But the power of these words tells a lot about what’s going on in the mind.

“Scared to death” is an expression of fear. If you look it up in the dictionary the definition is “extremely scared.” The word “scared” itself means, “thrown into or being in a state of fear, fright, or panic.” The question is not whether we are actually scared before a race — as many people actually are — but rather do we really want to be in a “state of panic or fright” before a race? The answer, of course, is no.

What we want to be is control of our emotions, thinking clearly, and ready to do what we have trained to do. Achieving a clear head is not so easy when we’re seeing spots with fright.
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Mental Games — Finding Your Focus On the Edge

running-advice-bugCoach Dean Hebert and I have both been writing over the past week about the discomfort of pushing hard and pushing through new boundaries. I wrote last week about the difficulty of pushing hard when we are already in a weakened state. I want to build on that today to talk about another aspect of this discussion: finding focus within or over the edge of your limits.

As I wrote last week, there may be times when you are in a weakened state and can’t get yourself to push hard in workouts. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that there aren’t types of workouts or situations that will bring you to a point of focus and allow you to move beyond the pain. What I mean here is that some people may find that situations like races or group workouts will focus them so much that they are able to intently concentrate and this allows them to go hard without that pain.

In my personal situation I noted that track workouts have been the bane of my existence over the past two years. I go to the track. I do short speed workouts, but anything beyond about 1,000 meters kind of makes my heart sink. This is, as Coach Dean points out, likely a fear response — a fear of failure or a fear of feeling even more pain than I already have going on in my world. But during this time I have felt completely at home during races. The particular focus that it brings to me allows me to shut out the fears and pain and push hard like I normally would on the track. What I’ve done is to race more during this time and use these races as intense speed workouts. For me this has been an answer to help me get in my workouts in a time when I might not have been able to mentally stomach the tough workouts on the track.

How this may apply to you is to think about the types of workouts that are blocking you, whether they are long speed workouts, tempo runs, sprint workouts or perhaps strength workouts. Think about them and then think of things that might sound a little more palatable to you. If running on the track doesn’t sound good, how about playing a speed game on a wooded trail. If you hills sound terrible, how about running up and down the stadium bleachers like “Rocky.” If tempo runs sound terrible, how about having a faster runner join you for 15 minutes and tying to keep up with them. There are many ways to skin these cats, you just need to find the types of workouts that will produce the results you are looking for but in ways that feel “doable” to you.
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Mental Games — Dealing with Mental Toughness in a Weakened State

running-advice-bugMy friend Coach Dean Hebert wrote a piece yesterday that resonated with me on a couple of levels. Today I am going to write the first of two pieces on topics related to it. In his piece “Breaking Comfort Zones“, Coach Dean is looking at the concept of breaking out of your comfort zones through risk taking and practice.

Breaking out of our comfort zones in training requires what we call “mental toughness”. Toughness in this sense means being able to bear some amount of physical or mental pain in order to accomplish something. Much of the mental pain may be imagined, as Dean points out, being fear-based responses to what we don’t know. We think that “this is going to hurt” but by the middle of the workout we are starting to understand that we control how hard we push, so the amount of physical pain is really in our own hands.

It is necessary to break out of our comfort zones in order to get better and faster. We only increase our performance by pushing harder or longer than we think we can. Pushing past our comfort zone is what needs to happen to get better.

As Dean writes about breaking comfort zones “…the experience is a fearful one for most. It is uncomfortable (mentally and physically) for sure. There is fear of the unknown, fear of failure, fear of experiencing pain/discomfort, fear of embarrassment, fear of peer reactions, and though less uncommon fear of success.”

But there is a bar that we must pass in order to break through these comfort zones, even if it is one that is subtle or maybe even subconscious. We must have the strength to submit ourselves to those fears or to that real mental and physical pain that we will encounter in pushing out of our comfort zone. At the most basic level, if we are not capable of “going there” then that’s not a place we can go.
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Training — Fear on the run, fear of the run

Coach Dean Hebert

Coach Dean Hebert

Coach Dean Hebert joins us this week to handle a couple of reader e-mails. Here is a question that has to do with fear:

I actually fear my evening run several hours before it, and keep getting thoughts that I will fail and won’t complete the distance I intend to…these thoughts keep coming into my head and I get really nervous. I usually run after work, and during the workday I get these thoughts and I get overwhelmed. Also, because of these thoughts in my head, I think I actually wind up sabotaging my runs. Any advice how to deal with this? I need help calming down and enjoying the run…I seem to be getting so worked up that I forget that running is supposed to be fun!

Sharon, you are not alone in this. I have worked with a number of runners in which fear, nerves and panic attacks are common. You are right that it is possible to be sabotaging your runs; then again it could just be concerns blown out of proportion. Here are some other posts that might be helpful.

There are two assumptions I have to make to put my comments into context.
1. You do not suffer from a medical issue (physical or mental).
2. That in fact you do not have a real issue to fear (i.e. physical safety)

Let’s deal with this as completely a running issue and a mental game issue. Fear is an emotion that is meant to protect us. That is, help us move away from something that may be harmful to us. Unfortunately, many things in life we fear are not truly harmful. Start by analyzing your fear; ask yourself: what specifically do you fear (i.e. failure, embarrassment, pain, getting lost on a race course)? Explore this in detail.
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