By Jack Singer, Ph.D.
A fascinating article was reported in the November, 2009 issue of Runner’s World. Most of us believe that running or doing other aerobic exercise is a wonderful stress reducer. Indeed, the “runner’s high” feeling that so many runners strive for seems to dissolve away the stresses in their lives, at least temporarily. But, “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.”
As reported in the Runner’s World article, “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.
The author points out that it’s mainly elevated stress levels that makes one vulnerable to injury, because of the prolonged elevation of cortisol, the stress hormone. Below are some potential problems and solutions if you wish to run when you are stressed:
Stress Symptom: YOU’RE DISTRACTED
If, while you are running, you are going over everything in your mind that is stressing you, the distraction in your thinking can cause you to miss potholes and other obstacles in the road or path.
The Solution: Run on a flat, well-lit surface, pick a scenic run that will capture your attention, listen to pleasing music and try to stay focused on the place, how well you feel physically, how you are helping your body by running, etc. In other words, fill your thoughts with the present situation and don’t think about distracting stress-producing thoughts.
Stress Symptom: YOU’RE ANGRY
Many people love to go for a run to blow off steam after becoming angry or frustrated. Experts say that if you run while angry, your form is off, and that alone can make you more vulnerable to injury.
The Solution: Run at a slower pace or even with a partner who runs at a slower pace. If you are comfortable venting about your anger to your running partner, that will help you to blow off steam and it will also help you to run at a pace where conversation can take place comfortably.
Stress Symptom: YOU’RE TOO TENSE
When you are very tense, and you start to run, you are especially vulnerable to being injured or re-injuring an old injury.
The Solution: Stretching, flexibility and strength conditioning can help immensely to prevent injury from running. Always take the time to stretch before running. If you still feel “tight,” stop and stretch your hams…you’ll be amazed at how that calms the whole body down.
Stress Symptom: YOU’RE EATING POORLY
When we are stressed, blood leaves the digestive track to gorge the arm and leg muscles. Not properly digesting our food leads to a lack of nutrients, so running when stressed may negatively affect the muscles.
The Solution: Eating frequent, small, mini-meals that include protein and proper nutrients will help the digestive process. Also, using a calming tape while running will keep the stress low and help the digestive process.
- Focus on taking deep, relaxing breaths through your diaphragm. Inhale through your nose to the count of four, hold to the count of four, and exhale through your mouth to the count of five.
- Always warm-up with walking before starting your run. This will prepare your muscles for the more strenuous work to follow.
- Eat foods that are rich in B vitamins (artichokes, avocados, dark greens), because these B vitamins trigger serotonin, a brain chemical that calms the body by counteracting the stress chemical of cortisol.
I am also available for phone consultations with athletes around the U.S. and in-person visits with athletes in Southern California. Call today toll free at 1-800-497-9880 for a free 20 minute telephone consultation with Dr. Jack Singer.
Jack N. Singer, Ph.D.
Certified and Licensed Sport and Clinical Psychologist
Diplomate, National Institute of Sports Professionals, Division of Psychologists
Diplomate, American Academy of Behavioral Medicine
Certified Hypnotherapist, American Academy of Clinical Hypnosis