why we feel nervous before running or playing sports


I have been training regularly since I was 21. After a full decade of running, rowing, lifting, squatting, and down dogging, fitness has become my primary source of personal care. So why do I feel so nervous every time I get ready for a run or a workout?

When we talk about building self-confidence while running or at the gym, one of the key things we are often told to remember is that no one else cares about what we are doing. If you’re nervous about other people watching you, you can be sure they’re all too busy thinking about themselves. But in my experience, it doesn’t help much. I am not nervous because I worry about other people; I am often worried about myself.

In my experience, pre-workout anxiety boils down to two things: catastrophism (“what if a run is much harder than usual?”) And confusion between natural cortisol spikes and fear. . We need cortisol, a stress hormone, just to get out of bed in the morning; this only becomes a problem when we start producing excessive amounts of cortisol. This can happen if we regularly do HIIT in addition to stressful work, if we are planning a sprint session after a disgusting night’s sleep, or if we are already feeling restless and getting down half a coffee pot of coffee. .

Sometimes we don’t even know why we are feeling nervous. We can do everything “right” but still feel like we can’t relax until we are finished exercising and eating endorphins.

It is not only us mere mortals who may experience nervousness before exercise either; even fitness professionals get a little nervous. “I have some anxiety before the race, but I usually put those nerves down to the excitement and intrigue,” explains Peloton instructor Becs Gentry.

Nerves show you care about the outcome

Above all, Gentry tells Stylist that it’s not always a bad thing to feel like this. “If there is one specific goal to achieve in training, it’s good to have nerves because they can be adrenaline,” which makes us want to work hard.

“Pre-race nerves show you care about the result,” she explains – something to remember whether you are competing in a 5k parkrun or the London Marathon. If you want to put in the effort and want to do your best, chances are you’re feeling nervous. To calm the mind on D-Day, Gentry advises, “Focus on the training you have taken and that this is a day that will be the culmination of an entire training program.

This means you don’t forget that if you’ve completed a 14-week marathon plan or a month-long 5k couch, the last run in question is your victory lap. The hard work is done, there is not much to worry about.

Daily nerves versus performance anxiety

Dr Joséphine Perry, sports psychologist and author of Play under pressure agrees with Gentry that a few nerves are good for competition. “They get us ready for action,” she said. Performance anxiety, however, arises when we start to doubt that we are actually capable of doing what we set out to do.

That’s when our threat system kicks in – sending our hearts pounding, our sweat flowing, and our bellies spinning. Dr. Perry explains, “When we feel threatened, the amygdala (the part that controls our emotional behavior) in our brain sends adrenaline and cortisol into our body. These chemicals prepare us for a fight, flight, or freeze so we can deal with the scary thing we are facing. “

Our amygdala doesn’t know if this scary thing is a circuit class at 7:15 am, a voluntarily entered marathon, or a grizzly bear that’s about to eat us. Because of this, we may experience seemingly disproportionate reactions to everyday activities, such as going to the gym. The key is not to try to shut down the nerves, but to reduce the stress response when these symptoms start to show up.

“When we notice that we start to be overactivated, certain breathing exercises can be very helpful in slowing down our breathing,” says Dr. Perry. She explains that when we are calm, we normally breathe up to 15 breaths per minute; in panic mode, it can go up to 22.

Understanding the stress cycle of cortisol production and reduction

It is important to point out that regular exercise has been shown to have a positive impact on people living with anxiety disorders, with various studies showing that exercise reduces anxiety in clinical settings.

There is also a lot of evidence to show that we release relaxing and euphoric endorphins when we move; exercise increases levels of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which repairs brain cells damaged by stress and depression.

The problem is, during or before a workout, cortisol levels can rise and if you are living with panic or anxiety issues, you may find that this rise can lead to an attack. The way around this, ironically, may be to exercise more frequently. In 2013, the National Institute of Mental Health found that the more aerobic exercise you do (running, for example), the less responsive your stress response systems become. Oh, and it also calms that pesky tonsil while increasing cortical glutamate and GABA, which are calming neurotransmitters.

The point here is that we can’t allow feelings of anxiety to keep us from moving because, as many of us know, exercise can quickly reduce that nervousness. And even if you live with chronic anxiety and panic attacks, moving often can help the body reduce these overactive reactions. If you suffer from anxiety or panic disorder, it is definitely worth talking to your doctor before embarking on a new fitness routine or working with a physiotherapist who specializes in mental health.

How to reduce anxiety before training

You have a number of options if you have nerve issues before a workout:

  1. To breathe: try Dr. Perry’s colorful breathing technique, which she uses to calm professional athletes. Choose two colors that you like. Inhale the first color through your nose for four seconds, hold for two seconds, and breathe out the second color through your mouth for six seconds. Repeat until you feel calmer.
  2. Change the type of exercise you are doing: If you’re worried about running or spending time at the gym, maybe start adding more yoga, cycles, and walking to your regimen to relieve the pressure. Maybe your cortisol levels are already high enough and you need a more relaxing way to move.
  3. Have everything planned: if you tend to exercise before work, pack your kit and bag so that you literally have to get out of bed and hit the gym. If you are training after work, put on your sports bra at the start of the day so that you are already partly ready to go once the tools are on. Removing the added stress of preparation can help.
  4. Work out the worst case scenarios: anxiety is frustrating because, for the most part, we know it is nonsense. What’s the worst that can happen when you go for a run? You can die, but it’s highly unlikely. You can stack it… but you can lift your feet to prevent this from happening. You might pull a muscle if you don’t warm up enough. Spending a few minutes having this kind of logical conversation with yourself can be calming and can even help you perform better.
  5. Reduce other stressors: if you drink a lot of coffee, consider reducing or switching to decaffeinated. You probably can’t control how many Zoom meetings you have, but you can make the decision to stop working on time, take a full lunch break, and turn off social media notifications on your phone. If you need a good night’s sleep before a workout, set aside non-negotiable nights to cook, bathe, and go to bed early.

Ultimately, moving our body should feel good; running, lifting, swimming – whatever it is – shouldn’t leave us feeling like nervous wrecks. A little anxiety before a workout can give us a boost but too much and it’s time to look at where those feelings are coming from.

Reduce those nerves by adding a few home exercises to your regimen. Visit the Strong Women Training Club to join one of our pressure-free courses.

Images: Getty


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