Coach Mario: Eliminate the Fear Factor
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How to reduce workout anxiety amid hard workouts and long runs

We all have them, those anxiety-inducing moments that leave us tossing and turning the night before a hard speed session or long run for fear that we might not be able to hit our splits or even complete the workout altogether.

Most of these fears are unfounded, of course, or at least unnecessary. Long runs and speed workouts aren’t meant to be easy but they can certainly be less scary, and even more productive, when you deviate from the norm every once in a while.

Losing sleep over your next speed workout or long run? Consider the following suggestions and rest easy the next time you head out out the door for a hard session.

1. Cover Up The Watch

Setting out for tempo run—let’s use 5 miles at goal half-marathon pace as an example—can be a nerve-wracking proposition: What if my first mile is 10 seconds per mile too slow? What if my average pace ends up being way off? Sometimes it’s best not to know until you’re done. If your next tempo run is getting you all worked up, don’t ditch the watch—just cover up its face with a piece of tape for the entirety of the workout (while still starting and stopping it accordingly). Pre-plan your route beforehand so you know where you’re starting and stopping points will be, and focus on the effort you’re putting out rather than the pace your GPS watch is spitting back at you. While you’re running, ask yourself: Can I keep maintain this intensity for 13.1 miles? If the answer is yes, stay on it! If the answer is no, back it off a bit. You can use this same trick at the track, too. For example, if you’re running 6 x 800-meter at a specific pace, you can start your watch, run at the appropriately hard effort and stop your watch at the end of each rep. You pull up the tape after each one to see if you’re on the right pace or you can go through the data later.

Learn to internalize your sense of effort and adjust accordingly on the fly. These skills will come in handy on race day when various factors—weather, terrain, etc.—affect the splits you’re trying to hit. And since you’re still wearing your watch—just not looking at it—you can crunch the numbers afterward.

If you’re anxious about doing a hard workout on the track, switch things up and do an unstructured fartlek session on a trail. Photo: Shutterstock.com

2. Step Off The Track

There are fewer places that cause runners more stress than the track, and with good reason: it doesn’t lie. Whether you’re looking for it or not, the track offers you hard feedback at the end of every lap, and if the splits on the watch don’t match with the assigned paces in your training plan, it can mess with your head and send your workout off the rails.

The solution? Step away every once in a while and run an unstructured fartlek session on the roads or trails instead of a meticulously thought out track workout. Forget about pre-determined intervals and planned paces, and just run a series of hard surges for as far—and as fast—as you feel like. Take as much, or as little, recovery between the periods of faster running as you need. You can run as many, or as few, surges as you want. Use landmarks such as trees or mailboxes as your starting and stopping points. Or, run hard for specific amount of time on your watch rather than for set distances. This is speed play, and the pressure’s off. You can be more loose in your approach but still get plenty of benefit from the bursts of intensity you exert.

3. Speed Up Time

The thought of slogging out a long run is enough to keep most runners up at night. After an hour or two of long, slow distance, a long run can drag on as the miles just never seem to end. One of my favorite techniques for doing a long run more effectively is to “speed up time” by mixing snippets of faster running into your over-distance runs. There are a number of ways to do that, but one of the simplest solutions is to throw in a 1-2 minute “surge” at the end of every mile, or every 6 to 10 minutes. How fast should your surges be? They don’t have to be crazy fast—just a tick or two faster than you’d been running, and not so fast that you feel the need to stop when the minute or two is up. While you’re surging, think about covering ground quickly and efficiently for a minute or two and pay attention to your form (specifically running with a quicker cadence or leg turnover) before returning to an easy, conversational pace until the end of the next mile.

An extension of the “surging” long run is to alternate easy miles with quicker miles throughout the course of your long run. My favorite way to do this is by running the odd miles easy and the even miles at a pace that falls somewhere between half marathon and marathon effort. This type of run lets you shut your brain (and your legs) off for a mile before forcing you to focus and engage for a mile. Next time you’re fearing the never-ending long run, give these surges a shot—the miles will fly by!

Mario Fraioli

Mario Fraioli is a Bay Area-based running coach who works with a number of Olympic Trials-level marathoners and internationally ranked ultrarunners. He also writes and publishes The Morning Shakeout, a weekly email newsletter that covers running and other topics that interest him. Follow his work at @mariofraioli and themorningshakeout.com