By: Kevin Irwin

Stress. It seems unavoidable in modern life. When chronic, it is linked with hypertension, heart attacks, strokes, and depression, just to name a few serious health issues. Definitely something you want to avoid.

I have to admit to feeling under a lot of pressure lately. I’ve got a task at work that feels positively Sisyphean, taxes to file, two kids who drive me batty (but whom I love anyway), and this post to write. What makes things worse is that my usual coping mechanism is running – but I’m still injured.  Which in itself is a source of mild stress, a feedback loop of sorts.

<Steps back.  Takes a deep breath.  Exhales slowly.>

All this stressing out on my part made me think of the great ketchup/running post from a few weeks back. (In case you were wondering, the fifth basic taste is called umami. As discussed there, the emotional component of running is often overlooked although it plays a significant part in performance, at least in my opinion. I’ve had races where I felt so elated while running, it felt like static electricity bristling from me. Not surprisingly, those were my best races. And the converse is true as well – being emotionally drained making every stride a struggle. And this brings me back to stress, because more evident that its physical tool is its emotional one.

In college, I had a teammate who performed consistently well in workouts, but couldn’t seem to get it to translate to races.  He wasn’t your typical “workout king” (like Cocky Caleb – he didn’t constantly have excuses and he had a good work ethic. He tried just about everything to see if he could change it – he went to a gluten-free diet for a while, thinking it might be food allergies (mind you, 20 years ago this was hardly an easy task). Despite all these efforts, there was one thing I thought he missed – stress.  He was a pre-med student, a highly competitive major at a highly competitive school. On top of that he came into races placing big expectations onto himself. All that mental pressure and anxiety – some bleeding over from classes, some self-induced – it’s hard to believe it didn’t have some effect.  His best race ended up being the last one of XC season, NCAA District championships, which was mostly meaningless, as we weren’t in the running for a NC bid.

As runners, we love to set goals for ourselves – to qualify for Boston, to run sub 40:00 in the 10K, whatever.  These are things which guide us, the beacons which we keep ourselves focused on as we fight our way through a difficult workout (or, on some days, as we fight not to hit the snooze button and go back to sleep).  But we need to keep some perspective when it comes to goals. It is not utter failure if we don’t reach them. I’ve said it before, and will say it again, it is the striving which is important, not the attaining (which is not to say you can’t achieve much more than you might believe, but I digress). I know people for whom their goals have become an albatross around their necks, leading them into a never-ending spiral of despair, as the self-made pressure mounts.

I recall reading somewhere (I think it was in Running Within<>, but I can’t find my copy to check) that you should come to the race with an excuse for failure.  Not to use, but to deflate any pressure you’re placing on yourself. After all, if you just positively know you’re going to fail, why not relax and enjoy it? I have to admit this is a somewhat extreme idea and probably not something I’d generally recommend for everyone – it certainly treads a fine line.  At the same time, there is definitely something to be said about disengaging the critical part of your mind.  Maybe easier said than done, but then again, aren’t most things?

So next time you’re stressing out about your race, you know what you should do?

Just f@#$%ing run!


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