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To stress or not to stress? That is the question

It’s the catch 22 of our sport: We’re especially motivated to run when we’re feeling stressed out, but running while stressed can lead to injuries that, well, amp up stress levels. 

Pounding the pavement is often touted as a healthy coping mechanism when we’re dealing with any one of the negative emotions (anger, grief, disappointment, frustration) that fall under the stress umbrella -- and for good reason. Research shows running helps the brain counteract the negative effects of stress by increasing feel-good neurotransmitters and inducing a sense of calm. Or, in layman’s terms, your next sweat session has the power to make you a little less Cameron Frye, a little more Ferris Bueller.

But there’s a danger, too. A study published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport revealed that athletes dealing with work, health or financial issues are more susceptible to injuries, aka “anxiety-induced performance catastrophes.” That’s partially because stress leads to the release of cortisol. In excess amounts, this hormone causes the body to tense up, making it more difficult to maintain proper form and much easier to tweak or pull a muscle. Over time, it can make a person more vulnerable to illness or burnout.

Of course, unless you’ve mastered a Russell Brand level of zen, it’s nearly impossible to leave your stress entirely at home after lacing up. So, the question becomes: How can you safeguard your running from stress so that it can continue to safeguard YOU from that stress?

According to leading sports psychologists and a growing body of research, staying present is key. In other words, try not to let your mind wander to what happened yesterday or what may happen tomorrow. Instead, focus on what you’re seeing, hearing and feeling in the current moment. Is that a caterpillar inching its way across the road? A leaf crunching underfoot? A pang of hunger you’re experiencing for a dark chocolate and cherry TM bar? As long as you’re zoned in on these sensory experiences -- ie, as long as you’re practicing mindfulness -- you can’t be distracted (or sabotaged) by thoughts of, say, a late mortgage payment or looming deadline. (Those things you can deal with when you get back home, after your stress-busting neurotransmitters have gotten their boost from your workout.)

And should a stressful thought or two creep into your head while running, despite your best efforts? Don’t panic. A little bit of cortisol can actually boost performance in the short-term, since it pumps extra blood and sugar to your muscles. To use that stress response to your advantage, according to neuroscientist Greg Norman in Runner’s World: simply “get into the zone where your challenge is balanced by your skill, energy and focus.” In other words: Choose a run that’s not so easy it’s unfulfilling, and not so hard that it’s deflating.

Then, take it all out on the track.

 


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