When the Anxious Athlete Takes Over

As it’s World Mental Health Day today, it seems like the best time for me to talk about my anxiety around running.

At least, it used to be just around running.

Earlier this year, I found that the sort of anxiety I used to have on start lines – you know, the fidgeting, wondering if I had time to make it to the toilet (AGAIN), generally being so tense I could have snapped, occasionally crying – had started to worm its way in to my every day life. I would go for a walk at lunch only to find that I would suddenly have to rush to the toilet (apologies to the person working in Paperchase who I literally ran away from as she tried to serve me). I started having panic attacks on the train which resulted in my holding up an entire 8-carriage to London. As someone who has to commute by train every day, the mere thought of simply getting to work would fill me with dread and I stopped wanting to leave the house.

I no longer felt like me.

I don’t really know what triggered this all. At the start of the year I had some stressful things going on and it’s possible that they just accumulated to breaking point, and I’ve always carried stress in my gut. But what I was certain of was that this situation couldn’t continue. I’m nothing if not proactive, so back in March I had some tests done at the doctors which all came back clear, and so reasoning that the problem was more mental than physical, I booked an appointment to see Dan Regan, who as well as being a fellow runner, is also a hypnotherapist. A friend had had a really positive experience with him and couldn’t recommend him enough, and his testimonial page was full of faces that I recognised from the sports scene in Ely. Thankfully Dan does free consultations so there was no massive upfront commitment, but as soon as we’d had that initial meeting I knew I wanted to work with him.

When it comes to picking a therapist of any kind, you have to be comfortable with them, and Dan and I got on immediately. Plus having shared knowledge of pre-race anxiety meant that he knew exactly where I was coming from. Over the course of 6 sessions he taught me coping mechanisms (some worked for me, some didn’t), gave me audio recordings to use at home and of course we had the hour long session to talk things through and do some hypnotherapy.

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Smiling when running!

And you know what? It really worked wonders for me. Don’t get me wrong, IBS is still a part of my life (I wasn’t expecting Dan to cure that!) and I still have situations that make me feel uncomfortable, but –  bar the odd wobble – the sheer panic I used to feel in that situation has gone. Instead I focus on my breathing, or tense the muscles in my legs or play word association games in my head. Even when it comes to races, even though I still get nervous (don’t we all, to some extent?), I don’t let it overwhelm me to the point of terror. If my stomach decides it’s not going to play ball I just accept it, and refuse to let myself despair over it. Instead, I focus on what I’m about to do and make sure I’m near those people who know what I’m dealing with and know how to help me through it.

And that’s where I need to say some thank yous. As well as to Dan, I need to thank my ever patient husband who went out of his way to try and minimise stressful situations for me, to Justin for being an epic sounding board on the way to races and to Pete who would try and distract me with games on the train and who was the one who purposefully blocked the train doors with my bike so that I wouldn’t get stuck and find myself going all the way to London.

Seriously Pete – who knew giraffes weighed that much?!

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I still consider my anxiety around my stomach issues to be a work in progress, but I have Dan’s audios to hand, an amazing support network around me and I’ve recently been enjoying pacing other people rather than putting myself under pressure to run super quickly. That’ll come back with time though. For now, it’s enough for me to be finishing a run with a massive smile on my face.

If you’re struggling with your mental health, you can find a number of resources available here.

Acupuncture and I: A New Love Story

Regular readers of this blog will know that 2016 was a tough running year for me. I had so many injury niggles over the year, and my anxiety around my running got so bad that I had to step back from races and even longer runs because my IBS flare ups were making it impossible to run.

But then towards the end of last year, a friend reached out with the idea of an experiment of sorts, after reading my blog post about my IBS. This friend is an acupuncturist in Ely, and we know each other through a mutual friend. We actually ran Insane Terrain as part of a team of 4 back in 2014. So, he offered to give me a few free sessions of acupuncture, and if they went well I could tell you guys about it, and if they didn’t help me, we could just part ways and continue to meet up at the odd get together.

Now I’ve always been pretty open to the idea of “alternative therapies” (the category that acupuncture tends to get lumped into) so I was more than happy to give it a go. After an introduction session where Anthony spent about an hour learning about my medical background (reasonably complex) and commenting on my “slippery” pulse (that didn’t sound like a compliment), I then had a cluster of treatments over a 6 week period, before moving to a treatment every 4-6 weeks.

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Insane Terrain. Yes those shorts were odd.

The good thing about Anthony is that although he is incredibly knowledgeable about what he does, he is in no way preachy about it, something I would struggle to get on board with. Instead he just drops into the conversation the fact that I have too much “Yang” (always go, go, go for me) in between the two of us putting the world to rights discussing everything from politics to reality TV. He is incredibly easy to talk to and is also a huge advocate of discussing the importance of mental health, a cause close to my heart (he highly recommends the Headspace app and is the brains behind Talking FreELY, a new Mental Health Awareness group in Ely). All of these things make a great practitioner.

As for the treatment itself, I do get a load of needles put into me (I think the most was maybe about 25) but they don’t hurt. Sometimes they cause a pins and needles sensation but it’s never uncomfortable. Anthony also uses moxa, a herb which he lights and allows to smoulder on my back which is then removed as soon as I start to feel the heat. It’s used to impact on the flow of “qi” in the area being treated, and I am obsessed with the smokey aroma it gives off. A nice side effect. He also often places ear seeds on my ear on trigger points where I can press on them whenever I feel my anxiety building.

But I guess the question is, did acupuncture work for me? My IBS issues during training all but disappeared (apart from when I failed to avoid triggers, such as episodes of unusually high stress or a super strong coffee less than 2 hours before a 10 mile run – idiotic) and my general demeanour around races has been a lot calmer. But the real test was always going to be the Cambridge Half Marathon. A race with a capacity of 9000 runners is huge for me. I hate being in large crowds, and in previous years I would be unbearable to be around from about 2 weeks before the race. Usually I would be maybe 15% excited and 85% nervous about a race like this, but this year it was easily the other way around. I also planned my morning pretty carefully, hanging out at my sister’s until about 10 past 9, before running/jogging to Jesus Green, using the completely empty public toilets there (perhaps I shouldn’t be letting you lot in on this tip!) and then simply hopping the gate into my starting pen 4 minutes before the race was due to start. I avoided all of those stress triggers, and went on to do the race of my life. I firmly believe that the treatment Anthony has done on me has played a huge part in my running epiphany, and I’ve been a (paying) customer of his since the start of the year, and will continue to be from now on.

“Comparison is the Thief of Joy” – My Running Epiphany (featuring Raj Koothrappali)

Throughout this post, I am going to use Raj from The Big Bang Theory to illustrate my thoughts. Just because he articulates them so beautifully.

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Last year I fell out of love with running.

I’m not sure what the trigger was. It might have been the lack of consistent training due to my injuries and Alan being unwell at periods throughout the year. But more likely I think it’s the pressure I put on myself.

Why am I not as fast as last year?

Why am I not getting any PBs?

Why can’t I keep up with her?

WHY IS THIS IS SO HARD?

Good grief, how boring right? Imagine being in my head for all of 2016. It was exhausting and generally hideous and it made my hobby almost unbearable. I kept comparing myself to how I had run in 2015 and to other runners, and I kept telling myself I wasn’t doing well enough.

But compared to WHAT? It was all so utterly meaningless.

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My pre-race anxiety nearly obliterated my ability to run, especially during the Kevin Henry 5k series – I cried at at least two of them. I mean for goodness’ sake this was meant to be FUN. When did I turn into this stressed out athlete? When did running become something I had started to dread?

But a few weeks ago, something happened. I decided to stop caring so much. My mantra is now – cover your ears if you’re not a fan of the swears (forgive me, I’m half Irish) is “F*CK IT”.

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I think this partly came about because I recently updated the “races” section of my blog, and when I saw how many races I actually ran last year, I was in shock. I had no idea I’d done so many. I think because the vast majority of them weren’t the kind of races that come with goodie bags and selfie-worthy bling I hadn’t actually “counted” them. But I really should have done. Because they were each in their own way a big deal. I even won two trophies last year for crying out loud.

So, I’ve decided to stop caring about times and what everyone else is doing, and to fall in love with running again. For the first time ever I’m more excited than nervous about the Cambridge Half Marathon (if you’re a long time reader of this blog you’ll remember the terrible head space I was in last year). I’ve even arranged to meet up post-run with Joanna and Pip, two awesome Twitter peeps who I’ve wanted to meet IRL for AGES. I’ll be the one with the pink hair girls.

From now on, if a race goes well, great. If it doesn’t, there’s always another. Above all else I want to finish every run having enjoyed it. I know that with social media it can be so easy to fall into the comparison trap, but everyone who is out there running is an awesome runner, regardless of how often they run, the distance they cover or the pace they run at. I include myself in that.

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Thank you Raj. All GIFs from Giphy.

Anxiety and Self-Sabotage -A Runner’s Curse

I am a good runner.

I am a good runner.

I am a good runner.

Seriously, if I say it enough do you think I might actually start to believe it? Because something has GOT to change. I am driving myself (and everyone around me) crazy each and every time I race because the nerves and self doubt flood my system and fill me to the absolute brim with IRRITATING SMALL PERSON JUICE. Honestly I cannot believe I haven’t been punched in the face yet. BY MYSELF.

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Let me set the scene. On Thursday evening I arrived at the site of the Saffron Striders’ hosted Kevin Henry League race. Pete, Rach and I probably arrived at about 6:40 with a race start time of 7:30, so there was a decent amount of time to kill. Cue 45 minutes of peeing (three times), pacing, nail biting and being the most annoying person in a 20 mile radius (you can keep your “no change there then” jokes to yourself, smart arse). Phrases uttered to me over the course of the evening included:

“Get a grip Lauren!”

“You need to sort your f*cking head out.” (Thanks coach)

“What is wrong with you?”

Being like this is exhausting, and I dread to think how much energy I’m wasting that I could be putting to good use during the actual run. I’m actually embarrassed by my behaviour and after each run I go home and do an actual facepalm, vowing to change something, anything to stop myself from being such a fool, but inevitably this bad behaviour cycles round and presents itself again next time I find myself on a start line.

But something has to change. Despite everything I managed a 20:51 5k last week,just 3 seconds off my best time this season and this was after a self-enforced 2 week rest because of my confusingly grumpy leg. So I know that the sub 20 5k is in my grasp if only I could make my mind be quiet.

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I’ve tried the Headspace app but I’ve struggled to really get on with it. I tried to apply their breathing technique at the race last week but it kept slipping from my grasp, like that dream you try and remember as you start to wake up but which fades away as you gain full consciousness. Just as I thought my mind was starting to empty those thoughts began jostling their way in again, all elbows and negativity.

So I did what any rational person would do – I asked the brilliant ukrunchat community on Twitter for advice. A lot of them recommended yoga and meditation (yoga is a big part of my life already), and I’ve been given the opportunity to try a new app that applies different relaxation techniques to meditation. I was also given a new mantra to try, and gin was suggested. I think I’m going to start with that.

Something needs to change. I don’t like this version of myself when I run, and since running helps me deal with the stresses of my life, getting this wound up before a run is so counter productive and self-sabotaging. I never thought when I started running that so much of my ability would be affected by what was in my head rather that what was in my legs. Wish me luck.

Gin Please

All gifs from Giphy