Is a fear of running holding you back? Learn to lace up with confidence. (Photo: Stocksy/Lumina)
I’ve never been a marathoner, and I probably never will be. But I was once a passionate runner, even if I could only manage six miles, max. In college, the trails were my happy place — well after dark, I’d lace up and head out, relishing the sound of my feet striking pavement (often, the only sound, other than my breathing) in the pitch black. My nightly three-mile ritual left me feeling strong, accomplished, and perhaps best of all, totally peaceful.
But then I started my professional career — and I quickly replaced running with less time-consuming weight lifting. I’d occasionally crank out intervals on the gym treadmill, but my midnight runs disappeared along with my well-defined calves. Late nights at the office suddenly took precedence.
The more distance I gained from my favored sport, the more I came to fear it — especially as I’ve entered the postpartum period, when my once-fit body just seems flabby and tired. Running requires mental resolve, and my mind is elsewhere — namely, wondering if my infant is melting down in the childcare facility of my new gym. I simply don’t have the will to endure the torture of a treadmill.
And I’ll be totally honest: I think I look kind of ridiculous running — actually, I know I do, because the treadmills at my gym are surrounded by unmerciful mirrors. While running, I have to support my breasts with my fists — thanks, breastfeeding! — so my stride is anything but gazelle-like. In fact, lumbering is probably a more accurate description. Even if I could find a properly fitting sports bra, I can barely last half a mile before I’m either too winded or too bored to continue.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m as enthusiastic about exercise as I’ve ever been — I recently tried hot yoga for the first time, and I’ve tackled many a new strength workout torn from a women’s magazine. I enjoy seeing my old body slowly reemerge. But running? No thanks, I’ll pass — today, tomorrow, and forever. I’m too afraid of looking silly, quitting in front of other gym-goers, or simply feeling like Flubber in motion. Did I mention I also hate the sensation of a racing heart? Bottom line, running is uncomfortable, both mentally and physically, and the longer I avoid it, the more intimidating it becomes.
Yet part of me knows running deserves a place in my workout repertoire. When I’m regularly cramming in cardio, especially if paired with a healthy dose of strength training, I’m at my leanest — and if I hit the treadmill with regularity, I’d undoubtedly gain the endurance to tote around my child’s ridiculously heavy carseat.
My dilemma isn’t an uncommon one. Nearly 20 years ago, the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association surveyed people about reasons they avoid the gym, and common ones included anxiety about their physique and a fear of looking incompetent or klutzy.
Running, in particular, can leave potential exercisers feeling intimidated. In a 2015 government report from the U.K., an exercise advocate reported, “I have women who tell me they run on a treadmill in their shed because they just don’t want to be seen in public. … Because we don’t see many overweight women exercising in public, other women don’t think that exercise is for them. They think it is for all the slim people that they always see out in the parks.”
Even if you aren’t overweight, the mental demands of running — one more mile, push harder, don’t slow down — are so great that just the thought of a jog can be intimidating. That’s compounded by all the negative self-talk that often occurs before you’ve even laced up. “Beginning runners fear that they can’t go as fast as they think they should,” Mindy Solkin, founder and head coach of the Running Center in New York City, tells Yahoo Health. The near-inevitable response? “I don’t want to do it, I’m not good at it — all these self-doubts,” says Solkin.
Related: How to Find a Sport That You Love
Self-doubt breeds fear — and not the kind that motivates you to get moving. “There are two kinds of fear,” says Stan Beecham, PhD, a sports psychologist and author of Elite Minds: Creating the Competitive Advantage. There’s the natural fear that occurs, say, when a barking dog chases you, releasing a flood of energizing adrenaline. “Our body is actually designed to do that — it’s something that happens to you in the same sense that you experience hunger when you’re not even thinking about food,” he says.
But the second kind of fear is based on your own thoughts, rather than truly threatening, external circumstances. “Most of the fear that we experience in our culture is self-generated,” Beecham explains. For example, you may think, “I’m going to look stupid doing this,” or “I know I’m going to fail.”
It’s these types of thoughts that deter you from even trying — or if you do attempt the activity, you may find your fears are a self-fulfilling prophecy: Your mind is so preoccupied with anxiety that you can’t get into the zone, thus compromising your workout.
“There are people who can run with essentially little or no thought,” says Beecham. “And that is generally associated with high performance.” This is the same state children achieve when actively playing, he says. “They’re in the present, they’re in the moment.” Read: They’re not wondering whether the guy one treadmill over has noticed they’re only running a 13-minute mile.
So how can I — and others freaked out by the idea of running — conquer my fears? The experts weigh in:
Realize your fear is internal
Your fear of running probably doesn’t stem from the risk of physical insult, such as shin splints or sprained ankles. It’s more likely mental — you’re afraid of wimping out or feeling judged by the Spandex-clad cheetahs next to you. But the truth is, the problem isn’t your fellow gym-goers. “The fear is generated inside of us — you have an expectation that something bad is going to happen to you,” Beecham explains. “Once you realize you’re creating the fear, you have the capacity to control it.”
In other words, rather than blaming external circumstances, you need to challenge your assumptions about exercise: Do you really know that everyone at the gym will be staring at you? Will you most certainly be unable to run a mile? “You don’t know that yet because it hasn’t happened,” Beecham says. “The future is simply a thought you create in your mind.” Only after you’ve set aside your negative assumptions can you enter the gym with confidence.
Ignore everyone around you
When you feel self-conscious, you may experience an inflated sense of self — that is, you may think people notice you more than they actually do. The truth is, “most people aren’t really concerned about you and what you’re doing,” Beecham says. “You are not the center of attention — the reason why these other 50 people are in the gym.” Think about it: When you’re really in the zone, do you notice the exercisers next to you? Probably not.
Watch The Property Brothers
There are TVs in front of gym treadmills for a reason: They distract you — and not just from the discomfort of exercise. Watching a TV show or jamming to a playlist keeps your mind from drifting into self-judgment mode, explains Beecham. If you’re focused on the tube, you’re probably not focused on the way your thighs look in the mirror. Once you’re more advanced, you can distract yourself with numbers: Track your heart rate or your pace, for example.
Realize that feeling uncomfortable is a good thing
If you’re not a seasoned exerciser, the feeling of a racing heart may make you feel anxious, since it’s the same physiological response you experience when you’re afraid, says Solkin. But the fact is, an elevated heart rate is a sign you’re making strides toward meeting your goals. “What’s difficult is exactly what’s going to allow you to get in shape and lose weight,” says Beecham. “A painful workout actually generates a positive result.” Yes, sweating profusely may be momentarily uncomfortable — but you’ll be thankful when the number on the scale starts moving.
Wear the right attire for you
Do your shorts hike up every time you take off on the treadmill? Is your sports bra totally unsupportive? Does your clingy shirt leave you feeling so sweaty you can’t stand it? The wrong clothing can wreck your run, says Solkin, further reinforcing your notion that the sport sucks. Case in point: “Women who are large-breasted have a fear of jiggling, of it being uncomfortable, of people looking at them,” she says. So before you hit the gym, invest in running gear that makes you feel comfortable and confident. That way, you’re focused more on your workout than your wedgie.
Avoid setting specific goals
If you tell yourself you must run three miles, but then quit after one, you’ll only feel discouraged — and that can eat away your resolve to ever try again. “If you say, ‘I must do this workout’ or ‘I have to run this distance,’ that creates anxiety,” says Solkin. Instead, “just run until you feel like stopping, then walk for a period of time,” he says. “Then when you feel like you’ve recovered, run again.” Continue this cycle, and you may find that you can run a little further each time you hit the belt.
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