Running and Performance Anxiety

Take two different run sessions. During the first run, you were certain to be able to reach your target.  During the second run, though, you just couldn’t stop worrying about your target. Does that sound familiar? In the case of the latter, you experienced what we call performance anxiety.

Where does performance anxiety originate?

Negative thoughts: the source of performance anxiety

Believing in yourself and in your skills is one of the greatest sources of motivation and inspiration you can have. It makes us move forward, take risks, and grow. The power with which we believe in ourselves influences each of our daily actions—whether it be getting up in the morning or going to bed at night, playing sports or preparing a meal. Positive thoughts boost us (“You can do it!”, “This can’t go wrong!”) while negative thoughts slow us down (“You’re not good enough!”) and neutral thoughts make us stagnate (“We’ll see how it goes”). Performance anxiety takes root the moment we believe we might not be able to achieve something.

Performance anxiety: a question of belief

Most athletes experience performance anxiety. It usually emerges when the training load or pressure of competition is perceived as being greater than the available resources; when the athlete does not feel that they can reach the target, and/or when the athlete does not take a step back to differentiate between what they can do and what they feel they can’t do. Someone who regularly thinks that they can’t accomplish certain things will more likely think the same way while practicing a sport. Some people can nonetheless flourish in sports and firmly believe in themselves in that context even while lacking self-confidence in other aspects of daily life.

Fatigue: a trigger for performance anxiety

Physical and psychological fatigue can also contribute to performance anxiety. As time goes on, physical and psychological fatigue accumulate and change our ability to perceive and distinguish between what we can do and what we think we can do. Thus, the idea of accomplishing a task that we feel we are not capable of makes us anxious, whether we have the necessary resources available or not. In this respect, we might have committed ourselves to accomplishing a certain practice target or a specific competition goal, but once the time comes, the accumulated fatigue makes us perceive that we don’t have the resources to accomplish the task. Then, performance anxiety settles in, and we lose sight of what we are actually able to accomplish.

Performance anxiety: a potential contributing factor to injuries

Performance anxiety influences our self-confidence framework. The more we believe that we can’t accomplish a certain task, the more anxious we become. The more we worry, the more we believe that we don’t have the necessary resources to accomplish the task. The constant negative impact to our self-confidence results in both physical and psychological fatigue. Therefore, the more anxious we become about our performance, the more our resources deplete and our body tires out, resulting in a greater probability of injury.

Figure 1: graphic representation of the dynamics between performance anxiety and injuries

Identify negative thoughts to protect yourself from them

Becoming aware of our negative thoughts is healthy at many different levels. First, we can reduce if not stop entirely the fatigue that arises as a result of complaining. Becoming aware of our thoughts and what drives us allows us to take a step back and identify what is true and what is not. Whether on a short-term or long-term scale, it allows us to avoid investing too much time in activities that result from negative thoughts and that do not do us any good. Secondly, the less we feel obligated to invest in activities in order to have a better image of ourselves, the less we experience frivolous fatigue and the better our chances are to avoid injuries.

A few tips for reducing anxiety after it has already settled in

Knowing how to identify our thought system and performance anxiety is very effective, but it also requires time. In certain situations, unfortunately, anxiety is already present and is affecting our current course of actions. In case you find yourself in such a situation, here are a few helpful tips on how to manage the dilemma.

  1. Running in a pleasant environment will allow you to feel better during your run and therefore reduce your anxiety.  When your anxiety level is high, try to run outdoors. Nature has a powerful and effective soothing effect.
  2. Paying attention to how you feel while you’re running will allow you to optimize any positive feelings. Always try to reduce or even erase any negative feelings that occur. Optimize positive sensations by smiling and by simply focusing on them. Visualizing nature, imagining meeting someone whose company we enjoy, or listening to music are good methods for optimizing positive sensations.
  3. Running while listening to your breathing: Breathing has a very calming power as it is linked to our neurovegetative system. Breathing in a calm and steady manner will work to soothe you physiologically as well as the ceaseless business of your mind. This in turn will help reduce your negative thoughts and anxiety.

Written by:

Mauraine Carlier – Doctor in Sports Psychology

Bibliography

Besomi, M., Leppe, J., Di Silvestre, M. C., & Setchell, J. (2018). SeRUN® study: Development of running profiles using a mixed methods analysis. PloS One, 13(7),

Csikszentmihalyi, M., Latter, P., & Duranso, C. W. (2016). Running Flow (1 edition). Human Kinetics, Inc.

Ivarsson, A., Johnson, U., Andersen, M. B., Tranaeus, U., Stenling, A., & Lindwall, M. (2016). Psychosocial Factors and Sport Injuries: Meta-analyses for Prediction and Prevention. Sports Medicine (Auckland, N.Z.).

Junge, A. (2000). The influence of psychological factors on sports injuries. Review of the literature. The American Journal of Sports Medicine, 28(5 Suppl), S10-15.

Lavallée, L., & Flint, F. (1996). The Relationship of Stress, Competitive Anxiety, Mood State, and Social Support to Athletic Injury. Journal of Athletic Training, 31(4), 296‑299.

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