4 Ways to Make Anxiety a Motivator

Visualizing yourself overcoming any challenges helps with mental preparation.

One major impediment in running performance is anxiety. All runners experience this feeling. Its key components are apprehension, tension and nervousness in both mind and body. Physiological manifestations of anxiety include increased heart rate and sweating, labored breathing, muscle twitches, dizziness and upset stomach. Psychological symptoms include confusion, attention disruption, and an expectation of failure. Runners may experience several or all of these symptoms.

Because of this, the connotation of anxiety is usually negative; but anxiety can be a positive force in producing running success. Knowing what these symptoms mean and being able to address them during a race can help motivate you to a strong finish. Anxiety can be the signal that challenges you to rally at the task ahead. Our thoughts affect our physical function; and negative ones can transfer from the central nervous system to the musculoskeletal system, causing a detriment to running performance.

Avoid the Wrong Questions

Our interpretation of a situation has much to do with our anxiety in regard to it. As runners, it is important to avoid the type of personal-ability questioning that can plague a race performance. Common examples of this include:

  • Am I fit enough to race at this pace?
  • Did I train correctly or did I arrive fatigued?
  • Are my competitors better prepared and faster than me?
  • Did I plan my mile splits right or am I in over my head?
  • Can I run the distance to the finish or am I risking injury?

These are questions that can have their place, particularly if you feel an acute pain or find yourself running considerably faster than your pre-race strategy. Yet many times we are in the bounds of what we planned for--well-hydrated, well-rested, and not feeling stride-altering pain--when anxiety sets in and compromises our performance. When these feelings occur, focus on your preparedness. This psychological assurance is another benefit of arriving to the start line well trained, nourished and rested.

Picture the Right Images

You may also wish to use visualization techniques in your training to give you strong, positive images of success to conjure during difficult points in your race. Visualization techniques involve imagining challenging situations during the event, and then imagining overcoming those challenges.

For example, picture running up a steep incline, being outpaced by a passing runner, sensing the onset of muscle fatigue and reaching for an ever-receding bend in the course ahead. You then see yourself surging on the steepest part of the hill, receiving a turbo boost just as your competitor tries to pass you, getting an injection of oxygen to those tired muscles or closing the distance and rounding that curve ahead to the finish.

You should imagine these powerful scenarios both during your training runs and in your spare quiet time, kind of meditating on the event as the date approaches. Once you practice calling these images to mind, you'll find you can quite easily rely on them whenever runs become difficult. Here are a few additional images you can use during a long run or race:

  • Feeling a bungee cord around your chest and hooked to an object in the distance which pulls you along
  • Seeing a personal best time on the finish line clock as you cross
  • Finishing ahead of a faster rival
  • "Thinking away" discomfort (do not ignore stride-altering pain)
  • Imagining your feet as two wheels rolling beneath you. You are pedaling a tiny bicycle, pulling up on the pedals rather than pushing down on them

Finally, turn off the chatter and listen to your body. In turn, instruct your muscles to relax and go to work. Feel the perfect tempo and enjoy the experience.

Go With the Flow

The concept of flow is closely related to--and oftentimes achieved with--mental imagery techniques. In sports (as well as many other disciplines), a "flow state" refers to a positive psychological state in which a person finds an almost euphoric balance between the challenge at hand and his or her capabilities. It is a relaxed state, not one of hyperawareness, though the performance result resembles that of a deep and total focus on the task. A flow state is the opposite of overthinking; you are "in the zone" and things seem almost effortless as you proceed feeling exactly matched to the task.

In endurance running, remaining mentally present--with no regard for what is behind or ahead--is one way to ready the mind for this euphoric state. Each step is the only step. It may also help to view the running task not in competitive terms, but as a natural process of oxygen intake and energy expenditure that rolls along without regard for strategy. Flow state is about recognizing positive feelings and capitalizing on them as you run.

Put Up a Fight

Sometimes a flow state can remain elusive. At such times, there is a place for a competitive spark in your arsenal of mental strategies. And the fuel that ignites the competitive spark is mental toughness. This fosters a need to stay in the game, not give up, push past all limits and plow through failure to success.

If flow state running involves capitalizing on positive feelings, mental toughness strategies can be thought of as capitalizing on negative feelings. Mental toughness is the gift that keeps on giving. Each time you push through failure and finish strong, you strengthen this disposition and make it that much more accessible and effective for the next challenge.

Practice competing--even in your solo runs--so that you can call upon these feelings during a race. First, be sure a hard run is on your schedule, and that you are physically ready for such a run. (Remember, regardless of what the schedule says, muscle fatigue or sluggishness means your biggest benefit that day will come from taking it slow and easy.)

Once you are warm and feel ready to run hard, you can compete against the clock. Try interval training on a track, hill repeats or variable-pace road runs. You can also compete against another runner or against objects by spotting neighborhood landmarks and keeping pace until you reach them. These running games teach you that you can push past limitations, building the key ingredient you'll want on race day: self-confidence.


American Running Association, empowering adults to get America's youth moving. For more information or to join ARA, please visit www.americanrunning.org.

(Dreyer, Danny, 2004, Chi Running, New York, Simon & Schuster, 236 pp.; Csikszentmikalyi, Mikaly, 1990, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, New York, Harper and Row; Speilberger, CD, 1971, “Trait-state anxiety and motor behavior,” Journ. Motor Behavior, Vol. 3, pp. 265-279)

Portions of this article were contributed by Frederick C. Surgent, Ed. D., HPER, professor of Health, Physical Education and Recreation at Frostburg State University, a constituent institution of the University System of Maryland.


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