"Stress and anxiety can contribute to injuries," says Buz Swanik, Ph.D., associate professor of sports medicine at the University of Delaware. "When you're under a great deal of stress, your energy levels get sapped, and you can't recruit muscles as effectively or react quickly."
Indeed, a study published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport reported that triathletes who had recently dealt with a "minor life event" or "hassle" (family, work, health, or financial issue) were more prone to injuries than those under less stress. Another study from the British Journal of Sports Medicine reported that elite athletes were more likely to get hurt if they competed while angry, confused, fatigued, tense, or depressed.
Whether you're new to the sport or returning after a layoff, follow the ultimate guide to becoming a runner.
That's not to say you can run only when you're calm and collected. Cortisol and adrenaline ("flight or fight" hormones) can boost performance when released in small amounts. A temporary case of prerace anxiety, for example, can quicken your pace, says Swanik. It's chronic stress — when you feel completely exhausted and on-edge for weeks on end — that makes you vulnerable. When cortisol levels are elevated for too long, your muscles and immune system don't function at their best.
So what's a runner to do in these especially tense times? By being aware of the ways stress can impact your running, you'll be able to find peace — and stay healthy — on the roads.
Stress Symptom: YOU'RE DISTRACTEDWhether you zone out or go over every last detail of the fight you had with your spouse, when you're frazzled, you're less likely to pay attention to everything from good posture to potholes. Research published in Behavioral Medicine indicated that stressed-out athletes had a narrower peripheral visual field and increased distractibility than those who were relaxed.
Run on a flat, well-lit surface, and try to pick a scenic route you find calming. "When you're on edge, it's easy to stop enjoying your runs," says Bruce Gottlieb, who has advised professional and Olympic athletes in Boulder, Colorado, for the past 20 years. "So run in a place that will help you be present in the moment." Another option: Hop on the treadmill and crank your iPod — music is a proven stress reliever.
Stress Symptom: YOU'RE FIRED UPResist the urge to go all-out in an effort to blow off steam, says Mike Ricci, head coach with D3 Multisport in Boulder, Colorado. "You're more likely to be tired when stressed, and when you start your run already fatigued, your form will suffer," he says. "You'll have trouble maintaining good posture, you might struggle with your leg turnover or footstrike. These things can lead to injury, especially during a tempo run or an interval workout."
"Take it down a notch and keep the pace comfortable," Ricci says. Run with someone whose per-mile pace is a minute or more slower than yours. You should be able to keep a conversation without panting. Bonus: Venting to a running buddy can be therapeutic.