Posted by: Dean Hebert | November 6, 2008

Training: Dealing with performance anxiety in running races

Coach Dean Hebert

Coach Dean Hebert

A reader named Susan writes in the following question:

I have been running for the last five years, although not really competitively, I work with a trainer for weight lifting and he coaches me on my running. I am a very anxious person and enjoyed running. I ran two half marathons and one full, 5ks and 10ks. I don’t know if this happens to anyone else, but I know that I can run a certain distance and pace myself. I have a Garmin. So, I can go out for a run and do a 9 minute or slower mile on longer runs and 8 minute miles on shorter runs.

My problem is this: A year ago, my coach was pushing me to do 5ks, so I did not one last year. At the one mile mark, I saw that my pace wasn’t where I wanted it be so I stopped and turned around. I signed up for a half marathon, practiced the training course (I live right by it) and the most I ran was 11 miles. I had a great run last Sunday, 9 miles; did little running during week and light weights. I get to the race and felt good about it. I really wanted to run it under 1:50 (I did it once before). I got to mile 4, not even, and I feel sick. I watch people I know pass me and I get a ride home. How can I overcome this anxiety, if that is what it is?

Indeed it would appear that there is a good chance you have a performance anxiety. As a mental games coach, I work with athletes on this issue. Only through a more in depth assessment can this be determined for sure as well as what the probable origins of the issue are.

Performance anxiety happens at many levels. I have one runner who freaked out over running a 5k and just never showed up for the race she was so afraid. I have a master’s All American track runner whose anxiety prevents her from breaking through in races despite workouts that would indicate the target times are more than achievable. I have a high school runner who runs great as a junior varsity runner and can’t match the times when he is put on the varsity squad.

So, be reassured you are not alone. And, be reassured that it is conquerable if you really want to. I’ll give you a general pattern and some suggestions however, most often, it requires one-on-one work to tailor the mental game plans and work with them day by day, week by week and race by race. (You can visit my website for more information on this service.)

About your training: 11 miles is plenty for your long run to have a successful half-marathon. This also indicates it is not predominantly a training issue. Though, if you are not integrating mental training into your runs and testing yourself in race simulations you may simply not be confident in your abilities because the actual “race scenario” is new to you. If you enter a race that you do not have your heart into, do not expect positive results. Racing is for you, not the coach.

Here are some tips to start with.

  • Train progressively more miles at your goal pace. This makes you physiologically more efficient at that pace and it builds you confidence to handle that pace.
  • Run time trials during your training. Test yourself to run hard while fatigued. Aside from physiological benefits you fortify your ability to be mentally tough. It reinforces what you are capable of.
  • While running, imagine what you will do if negative thoughts come into your head. Recite, rehearse and actually use them in practice runs. It is not sufficient to have thought about them at some point. If you don’t practice them, they will not magically appear during a race.
  • Use visualization regularly. According to one study by sports psychologist Terry Orlick, 99% of Olympians do some kind of visualization for an average of 12 minutes per day. This is not superficial positive comments to oneself or seeing a medal around your neck. This involves actually sensing (using all senses) yourself in various scenarios, and “living” it. Rehearse how you will work your way out of those overwhelming feelings and thoughts of quitting. A mental games coach can help you script scenarios and practice them.
  • Develop triggers – verbal and kinesthetic – that remind you what you want to be thinking during those tough times such as when someone passes you.
  • Use a pattern interrupt – a specific intervention – to signal to you to stop your negative thought patterns.
  • But the issue can go much deeper and so I’ll suggest that you explore the following points.
  • Learn about why you race and run. Do you run for yourself or for someone else?
  • Explore issues such as running and not wanting to “let someone down” (coaches, peers, significant others).
  • Learn the difference between expectations and process goals – the practice mindset and the trust/performance mindset. Expectations set people up for stress and disappointment Process goals focus on the independent steps that lead to the desired outcome instead of focusing on the outcome.
  • Establish process goals instead of outcome goals (a finish time or place).

The final word – the more pressure you put on yourself to overcome this, the worse it will get. It’s like “trying” to relax. The harder you “try” the more “effort” you put into it, the less you will relax. You will need to let go of evaluating and of outcomes. Run with pleasure and with passion and the times will come. Run only for times and the stress may make it doubly hard to achieve your desires.

Coach Dean Hebert, MGCP, Tempe Arizona, USA
Contributing Editor, Running Advice and News



  1. great article! I recently ran my 1st 1/2 marathon and experienced terrible anxiety while running. I felt pressure to do well for others and felt discouraged when I was passed. I began telling myself “I can’t do this” and “it’s only been 5 miles?” Needless to say, my breathing was off and I was fatigued way too early on in the race. I finished but not in the time I knew I could and not without stopping and walking some. I have got to be more mindful of my negative thoughts when competing. It’s good to see that I’m not the only one who experiences this.

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