Understanding why I get stressed before a workout has helped make running fun again…
WHEN I WERE a teenager, Space Invaders machines were the latest thing, jazz-funk bands like Linx and Shakatak were riding high in the charts*, and I used to go to swimming club every week.
I bloody hated swimming club.
It was stress, you see: I dreaded the hard, physical work so much that my Mum got into the habit of driving me to the pool early, so I could spend half an hour in the toilets beforehand.
We’d always start with the dreaded, mile-long, warm-up – four lengths of Butterfly, followed by three of Backstroke, two of Breaststroke, and one of Crawl, rotating each stroke through 4-3-2-1 until we’d completed 64 lengths.
But I could barely manage 25 metres of Fly, so those first four lengths were more a case of half-drowning than swimming.
Then, after the warm-up, there were still another couple of miles to get through – constantly fighting to catch my breath, trying to control my panic underwater at every Tumble Turn.
And all the while, our Fred Flintstone lookey-likey coach would be further ramping up our arousal levels, prowling along the poolside, yelling at us to go faster and defy the lactate weighing down our limbs.
I’ve started to experience feelings of dread before running”
Swimming club has been front of mind recently because I’ve started to experience the same feelings of dread before running, of all things – even though a run is something I’ve always adored and looked forward to.
It’s true that I’ve always struggled a little with the first few hundred metres of any run – until I give up the fight to actively control my breath, and my body just starts breathing in tune with the work it’s being asked to do.
But, lately, I’ve been worrying more and more about my age, my (probably) arthritic knees, my lockdown-stiff hips, and the bad eating and drinking habits I’ve taken up during the pandemic.
I feel short of breath even before I set off, and my tummy grumbles in a way it hasn’t done since I was 14, trying to pluck up some courage in the swimming pool sheds.
I don’t need to be scared”
Thank goodness, then, for University of Michigan psychologist Ethan Kross, whose new book Chatter has helped me understand that I don’t need to be scared of running.
According to Kross, the butterflies, shortness of breath, and the raised heartbeat I’m experiencing before a run are just an “adaptive evolutionary reaction” that our cave-dwelling ancestors developed in order to respond to threats.
“Threat includes physical danger,” Kross writes, “but it also encompasses a range of more common experiences. For example, when we encounter situations that we aren’t sure we can handle.”
So, if I keep telling myself that I can’t handle a five-mile run, I start to see the run as a threat – perhaps to my knees, or more existentially, my self-esteem – which then ramps up the stress response even more.
It’s just my Inner Caveman, trying to get me round the park five times”
If, however, I can tell myself that my physical discomfort is just a sign that my body is getting ready to perform, the task ahead can start to look like an achievable challenge rather than an ordeal.
“In other words,” Kross writes, “tell yourself that your sudden rapid breathing, pounding heartbeat and sweaty palms are not there to sabotage you but to help you respond to a challenge.”
As I stood at the start of my last run, I tried to remember Kross’s words – and they worked.
I noticed my slightly raised heart rate and smiled inside, because I knew that it was just my Inner Caveman, trying to help me get around the park five times.
Instead of consciously trying to regulate my breathing, I was happy to let my body take over, because after millennia of human experience, it already knew what to do.
The fear was suddenly gone: I just wish I’d known all this back in swimming club.