If you’ve read my other Fitness & Health Journey posts, you know by now that I’ve been attempting to run and joined the run my colleagues participate in every year, a 5K that is commonly run by literally thousands of people. And if you’ve known me for a while, you also probably know that I am socially anxious & generally awkward.
Between trying to act like a normal person, not get overwhelmed by the crowd and trying to survive the run although I suck at running, I did a few things that helped me go through this as smoothly as possible, and I thought today I’d share some of my tips that worked!
Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, neither do I work in mental health, sports or medicine. My social anxiety is mild to medium, and normally triggered by depression or being in groups and crowds, but I do not normally suffer from panic attacks and have been able to work and have a more or less “normal” social life for over a year now. If you have medium or severe anxiety, these tips will probably not be enough, and should at least be combined with medication and/or therapy. My aim with this post is to make life with social anxiety a bit easier for other people with things that help me, NOT to substitute proper medication and care, or to encourage socially anxious people to try an activity that is potentially triggering. Stay safe and do only what you can do. But if you are a runner and you’d like to join a race, I hope this article makes you feel less alone.
Force Yourself to Eat Even if Your Anxiety Doesn’t Want You To
When I’m particularly anxious, I just cannot eat. I spent the entire race day eating like a bird, but I knew from experience that I don’t perform well if I don’t have some food at least a couple hours before, preferably something easy to digest and sweet. Ignoring my stomach’s protests, I had a small sandwich and an apple a couple hours earlier. This helped my legs keep working even if my brain was trying to make me run on nothing more than adrenaline.
Drink Water Like It’s a Competition
Sweating is a pretty common symptom from anxiety, and it was over 30 degrees Celsius on the day of my run. I’m pretty sure I was still a bit dehydrated during the run, because of the 2h in between arriving at the place and actually running, during which I survived off people’s generosity because 3.50 EUR a bottle is a CRIME. #Swabians
Joking aside, please drink lots of water, even if you’re a bit nauseated. You’ll sweat a lot from the run and from anxiety and it won’t make things any better if you get your body working extra hard because it’s dehydrated.
Make a Person You Trust Sign Up
I am quite open about my social anxiety to whoever I think should know, including a few colleagues, so one of my colleagues (who I’m also friends with) stayed with me during the day talking to me to distract from the crowd and my own nervousness. Also he waited for me at the finish line when I literally almost passed out. I know it’s a privilege to have someone you trust like that, and also it isn’t easy to open up and tell people you’re anxious, especially due to stigma at work. But if you can get a friend to the race with you or just be able there to talk to you so you don’t have to talk to other people can make a world of difference. During my first run, my boyfriend ran all the way together with me. People are usually pretty willing to be helpful and kind if you ask them.
Ask a Friend to Be Available to Frantic Texting
I think I told every single person who knows me that I was going to that run and texted everyone about it before I started, sending selfies and panicked stream-of-consciousness messages. Being busy texting someone you know and trust can help you forget you’re in a crowd. They can help boost your confidence, too. If you’re in a different time zone from the people you love, you can also use social media – people can be surprisingly kind. Shoutout to the Women’s Prize Squad for having my back when I was being obnoxious with my texting!
I know maybe you want to arrive as close as possible to the race time to “get it over with”, and this tip will not work for everyone. But arriving early helped me watch the crowd grow little by little and find people I knew, instead of jumping head first into a multitude of people I didn’t know and getting sensorial overload on top of everything. Again, this might not work for everyone – being exposed to people for too long is exhausting, so it’s a bit of a juggling situation. I think next time I’ll go by myself and arrive just 1h earlier, instead of spending 2h30 under the sun forcing my grimace into a smile.
Plan what you can
Keep a to routine the days before a race, and plan what you can: meals, rest time and/or short runs the days before the race, what you will wear… whatever works for you. This will give you a sense of control and make you feel more prepared on race day. For example, I like to eat something slightly heavier than my usual the day before running (but nothing too crazy), especially if I’m running in the morning, since I don’t eat much in the mornings. Eating more the evening before gives me extra energy.
Run the Track Beforehand
This is a general race tip, but it’s especially good for anxious people. If you have the opportunity to run on the track where the race will take place, it will take a lot of the anxiety away. I had a much better experience two days later joining a run much steeper and longer, but that I already knew a bit before, than that first 5K. It probably also helped that there were fewer people, but I didn’t have to worry too much about not turning on the right places or not knowing the ground and had a lot more fun.
Breathe & Remember Why You’re There
Running has been transformative for me and my anxiety. Running makes the extra energy that comes from being anxious go away, turned into tiredness and satisfaction instead. It’s one of the main reasons why I continue, and although it’s not something that might work for everyone, it has helped me in ways I couldn’t imagine, from my self esteem and confidence to my immune system and anxiety. Nobody cares if you are so slow, or if your picture from the race looks ridiculous (I always think I look ridiculous in candid shots), or if you have to walk a lot. People are focused on themselves and, if you can just look at the track and focus on breathing and keeping one foot in front of the other, it will be okay. If you don’t perform the way you wanted to, it will be okay.
From Other Runners…
I’ve been told by a few people some tricks they also do to stay focused and not too nervous on race day. None of them have anxiety as far as I know, but being nervous on race day is a pretty common thing, so I think the tips are valid! Here are things I haven’t tried myself but might help you:
- Have a sports watch to know exactly how much longer you have to run. (I wear a watch but since I haven’t been to races without it, I can’t compare the experiences of with/without. But I have an article on training with/without a sports watch, if you’re interested!)
- Listen to music or an audiobook
- Plan how you’re going to reward yourself after the race (I love this tip)