Maximize the Anxiety-Busting Benefits of Your Training

Many athletes use their workouts as a way to work out their anxiety, but the effects might be temporary. Use these expert-approved tips for training to banish anxiety for the long haul.

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Although there are many reasons we get into triathlon, like a desire to get in shape or be a part of the community, many of us stick around for the undeniable psychological boost. Whether we suffer from chronic anxiety, situational anxiety, or are just having a lousy day, training can feel like a balm. It can help us forget our troubles, lift our mood, and change even the darkest outlook. However, sometimes we come to rely on training to cope with everyday life, reaching for our running shoes at the first sign of uncomfortable emotions associated with anxiety. We may feel good for a while after the sweat session, but it’s only a matter of time before the anxiety roars back. If all it took was a workout to manage anxiety, no one in the triathlon community would ever be nervous or worried. So what are we missing?

Anxiety and the athlete brain

It may be hard to believe, but anxiety is a normal and natural part of the human experience. There is evidence of anxiety in humans as far back as the Paleolithic era and neuroscientists assure us that it serves a function of protection, allowing us to respond to new situations as they arise. Unfortunately, in our complex world where new and potentially threatening input is coming at us from all directions, the delicate balance of neurotransmitters, neuroanatomy, and the neuroendocrine system is thrown off more often. As these disruptions occur, we experience the physical and emotional symptoms of anxiety like worry, increased heart rate, a sense of fear, sweating, difficulty concentrating, and restlessness. If you’re an athlete, that’s about the time you start pulling your bike out of the garage.

Landon Hildebrand, a Psychologist, founder of Approach Psychology, and ultrarunner says that the athletes he works with tend to be confused about what these symptoms are telling them.  “There is a crossing of wires when it comes to recognizing symptoms. They misassociate these feelings, whether cognitive or somatic, with the need to exercise and miss the other signal of what the anxiety might actually be about.” He says that many people immediately try to mute feelings of anxiety, preferring to dismiss distressing emotions by heading out to train. A meta-analysis on the effects of exercise on anxiety shows that not only will mood be improved by the influx of both norepinephrine and serotonin, but the brain will also produce its own opioid-like substances which will contribute to the happy factor. Before we know it, we’ve forgotten what we were worried about in the first place. But, are we just running – or running away?

RELATED: Mental Health Used to Be Taboo in Endurance Sports. These Researchers Are Changing That.

The downsides of dismissing your anxiety

If we constantly respond to our anxiety with physical activity, we reduce the symptoms of anxiety, but not the cause. We dismiss our feelings instead of dealing with them. This behavior continually reinforces the idea that emotions should always be avoided, which computational modeling research in psychiatry shows will eventually diminish our belief that we can handle what life throws at us and bolster our fear of emotional upheaval. We may think we know what terrible things will happen to us when we are forced to experience emotion, but countless research papers and books authored by renowned psychologist and neuroscientist, Dr. Lisa Feldman Barret confirm that we are not only bad at this type of prediction, we are also terrible at even recognizing what emotion we’re feeling. Instead of becoming curious about what feelings could mean, we remain confused, and feel safer trying to numb them completely. 

Worse, since the idea of not getting the daily “fix” of mood management becomes unbearable, athletes are less likely to take much-needed rest days. Hildebrand says that a rest day feels intolerable because people have more time to ruminate. Additionally, he notes that athletes in an anxious state are more likely to overestimate the negative effects of rest and underestimate the positive effects which will confirm their need to keep moving. If and when injuries arise from a lack of recovery, athletes are often devastated by the inability to train because they become vulnerable to the unaddressed, underlying anxiety.

RELATED: What Coaches Need to Know About Mental Health

“Training” to manage anxiety: A two-pronged approach

Hildebrand proposes a two-pronged approach to anxiety management that includes physical activity, but doesn’t stop there. The anxious athlete who finds relief in training can certainly get out there and move, gaining all of the mood-boosting and symptom-reducing effects of exercise. However, this should be coupled with the athlete taking advantage of a calmer, more regulated state of mind to uncover the origin of the anxiety and deal with it directly. We can do this with the help of a qualified mental healthcare practitioner or on our own through journaling, meditation, or other deep self-inquiry practices. Whatever the method, we’ve got to put in the work–no dismissing. 

“Once they can see anxiety as a state of nervous system arousal which is looking for threats, risk, and challenges, they can begin to differentiate these symptoms from their bodies ‘desire to move’,” says Hildenbrand. We might learn that a push to train is actually compensation for insecurity about our personal accomplishments or is tied to body image. We might learn that we’re working out to avoid feeling grief from a recent divorce or struggling with loneliness. It can be hard to see things that we’ve tried to cover up for so long, but the benefits to mind and body are real and lasting. 

This approach is uniquely suited to endurance athletes because it builds upon the skills we already have. We gain confidence in triathlon training by learning to manage whatever unexpected circumstances might come up during a race. We can do the same with anxiety. “The idea is to teach people how to prove to themselves that they are not going to explode from feeling intense emotions. They begin to learn that anxiety isn’t categorically bad.” 

Don’t hide from the hard work

As we work through this strategy, it’s important that we take it easy on ourselves since emotional intelligence studies on students in the United States show that our culture doesn’t exactly teach healthy engagement with emotions. Plus, we are surrounded by inaccurate media depictions of athletes that seem to suggest that overcoming anxiety or other mental illness is just a matter of moving their bodies more. This is not reality and can cause us to become even more avoidant when we don’t measure up to the myth. The truth is that we don’t need to hide from the hard stuff. If there’s one thing triathletes know how to do, it’s face the fear and do it anyway. 

Are you managing anxiety symptoms…

  • Swim, bike, run to “feel less antsy”
  • Overeating/undereating
  • Drinking alcohol in excess
  • Adding additional workouts
  • Avoiding rest days
  • Cold compress/cold shower
  • TV, video games, social media
  • Sporadic meditation, “as needed”

…or managing the roots of anxiety?

  • Attending one-on-one, group, or couples therapy with a qualified mental healthcare practitioner
  • Cultivating a daily meditation and/or spiritual practice
  • Sitting with emotions without distraction
  • Journaling with deep self-reflection
  • Communicating openly with friends/family to address conflicts/issues
  • Reaching out for dietary support from a sports dietitian

RELATED: Mental Health Resources for Triathletes