Running when you're tense or angry can cause injury. Here's how to unwind safely.
By Meghan Rabbit , Runners World.com
Work has piled up, your kid is sick, and your car needs an expensive repair. When you have a miserable day, you probably make a beeline for your favorite route and try to work out your frustrations over a few miles. But there's a chance the very thing you're doing to unwind could set you up for injury—a runner's ultimate stress.
"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."
Indeed, 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.
That's not to say you can run only when you're calm and collected. Cortisol and adrenaline ("flight or fight" hormones) can boost performance when released in small amounts. A temporary case of prerace anxiety, for example, can quicken your pace, says Swanik. It's chronic stress—when you feel completely exhausted and on-edge for weeks on end—that makes you vulnerable. When cortisol levels are elevated for too long, your muscles and immune system don't function at their best.
So what's a runner to do in these especially tense times? By being aware of the ways stress can impact your running, you'll be able to find peace—and stay healthy—on the roads.
Stress Symptom: YOU'RE DISTRACTED
Whether you zone out or go over every last detail of the fight you had with your spouse, when you're frazzled, you're less likely to pay attention to everything from good posture to potholes. Research published in Behavioral Medicine indicated that stressed-out athletes had a narrower peripheral visual field and increased distractibility than those who were relaxed.
THE SOLUTION Run on a flat, well-lit surface, and try to pick a scenic route you find calming. "When you're on edge, it's easy to stop enjoying your runs," says Bruce Gottlieb, who has advised professional and Olympic athletes in Boulder, Colorado, for the past 20 years. "So run in a place that will help you be present in the moment." Another option: Hop on the treadmill and crank your iPod—music is a proven stress reliever.
Stress Symptom: YOU'RE FIRED UP
Resist the urge to go all-out in an effort to blow off steam, says Mike Ricci, head coach with D3 Multisport in Boulder, Colorado. "You're more likely to be tired when stressed, and when you start your run already fatigued, your form will suffer," he says. "You'll have trouble maintaining good posture, you might struggle with your leg turnover or footstrike. These things can lead to injury, especially during a tempo run or an interval workout."
THE SOLUTION "Take it down a notch and keep the pace comfortable," Ricci says. Run with someone whose per-mile pace is a minute or more slower than yours. You should be able to keep a conversation without panting. Bonus: Venting to a running buddy can be therapeutic.
Stress Symptom: YOU'RE TOO TENSE
You're sitting at your computer and suddenly you realize your shoulders are near your ears and your jaw is clenched. It's natural for muscles to tighten up, but if you start running immediately after a tough day (see "Fresh Start," below), you might strain something—especially an area that's already weak or vulnerable. "Stress can cause changes in the body that may most adversely affect areas that are not working at their optimum potential, such as an old injury with resultant scar tissue or reduced flexibility," says Larry Frieder, a Boulder, Colorado, chiropractic sports physician.
THE SOLUTION Improve your flexibility and strength—especially in those weak, injury-susceptible spots. Plus, strength and flexibility workouts encourage you to listen to your body. During a massage, stretching session, or weight workout, you might notice that your left hamstring is tighter or weaker than your right one, for instance. Working to resolve that issue now could save you the grief of physical therapy later.
Stress Symptom: YOU'RE EATING POORLY
When you don't have the time or energy to cook, some people end up in the drive-thru, while others skip meals. Either way, your diet suffers. What's more, the healthy nutrients you are eating aren't getting fully absorbed. "Blood rushes away from the stomach when we're stressed, which leads to less digestive enzyme production and weaker digestion," says Craig David, a certified fitness nutrition specialist. "Poor digestion can also lead to poor nutrient absorption, which can lead to a loss of lean muscle tissue."
THE SOLUTION Eating small, frequent mini-meals that include a lean protein, complex carbohydrate, and monounsaturated fat (like almond butter on whole-wheat toast or guacamole and carrot sticks) helps stabilize your blood sugar. This will keep your metabolism and digestive tract humming and will make it easier to resist unhealthy snacks.
While the rush of endorphins you get from exercise can be the perfect antidote to stress, running when you're really wound up can lead to more problems. Here's how to loosen up before you lace up.
JUST BREATHE Calm your nervous system and press the "reset" button by focusing on your breath. Close your eyes, and imagine the air moving deeper into your belly with each inhale and pushing more air out on each exhale.
WARM UP To combat stress-induced tightness, start off with a five-minute walk. Gradually pick up the pace.
VISUALIZE A FUN RUN Conjure up an image of the last time you smiled when you were running and do everything you can to mimic that run.
Frazzled? While lying in bed, take your pulse. Get up, and take it again in two minutes. If your heart rate is 10 beats per minute or more faster, run easy today.
Foods that are rich in B vitamins (artichokes, avocados, dark greens) trigger serotonin, a calming brain chemical.