Avoid The Anticipatory Running Pain Trap

Instead of thinking how bad a run will be, just enjoy your relaxing time!

Behind the scenes here at Salty Running, we get into many fun, informative, and supportive conversations. Recently Pumpkin was sharing her inner Bertha moment and questioning if she should do a workout even though she didn’t want to. I suggested she try the workout, but that she should not use her sluggish feelings before the workout as a reason to assume she will feel feel sluggish during the workout.

Dill then chimed in that our conversation reminded her about anticipatory grief. Anticipatory grief happens when we feel grief over a loss before that loss occurs. It’s very common when caring for a loved one suffering from a chronic illness or a dying elderly loved one, but anticipatory grief can also occur within the ill or dying person herself. Why does this happen? Partly, it’s because we think the loss will hurt less when it actually happens. Sadly, we can’t predict the future of how loss will affect us.

While anticipatory grief is a sad and serious concept, it has a very practical application to something that generally brings joy to our lives: running. 

Applied to our running, long before we start it, we often predict how we will feel on a run or during a race. Have you ever found yourself dreading a run after a long day only to to be pleasantly surprised that the run reinvigorated you? If so, you may have fallen victim to some anticipatory pain, and, more importantly, overcame it. Congrats!

What Is Anticipatory Running Pain?

So anticipatory running pain is a little more than Pumpkin’s pre-run sluggishness. Here are some samples of what you might say when experiencing it:

  • This easy run sucks. I’m not in as good of shape as I thought. Next month’s goal race is going to be a disaster.
  • I ate a lot today at lunch. I bet I’m going to be bloated and feel horrible on my run.
  • Gosh I feel so shaky and weird on this warm-up! This race is going to suck!

How you feel in any given moment is not necessarily how you will feel at any point in the future. You do not have ESP! It’s not your fault though. You’re not doing it wrong. Our bodies are trained to seek pleasure instead of pain. That’s a survival instinct, after all.

By telling ourselves something will be painful, our brains are just trying to be helpful. Although, the thing is, when we do this we often end up feeling worse according to researchers. Not only that, by trying to predict the pain, we may actual cause the run to be painful, through self-fulfilling prophecy.

Symptoms of Anticipatory Running Pain

  • Procrastinating: lying around, cleaning, one more bathroom trip, going down the social media hole on your phone, or crossing off that item that’s been on your to-do list for months before you go out the door.
  • Constantly rescheduling workouts, races, or run dates with others.
  • Frequently talking yourself out of a run, workout, or race.
  • Experiencing lingering thoughts at the onset of your run that, “this is going to suck”, or “I feel horrible.”

The good news? There are a couple things you can do to combat the thoughts and behaviors of anticipatory running pain.

The bad news? It’s going to take more mindfulness stuff! Yeah, I know. But I will get you to join me on this mindfulness bandwagon!

Seriously though, one of the reasons mindfulness often gets a bad rap is because it’s pictured as something that means calm when in reality life is far from that. One of my mindfulness buddies and colleague, Daron Larson, has a great article and Ted Talk on why so many of us resist mindfulness. You know why that is? Larson says it’s because, well, the present does often suck. But see, the point of mindfulness is not to do it to make the feelings go away, it’s to experience whatever discomfort we feel in the moment … not at a future moment.

How to Cope with Anticipatory Running Pain?

  • Remember, that you can be anxious, bloated, or lethargic and still do this. Repeat this mantra to yourself as you prepare for your run. Nike was on to something when they created their famous slogan. No matter your feeling, just do it.
  • Approach a run you are dreading by labeling how you feel when you begin. Tell yourself you’ll test things out for a few minutes then reassess again. And again. And again. Voila! You’re now done and feel a lot better!
  • During a run that starts off rough, check in with the discomfort for a few seconds and then try to find another area in your body that is calm or pain-free. For instance, if your legs feel heavy, maybe your lungs feel good. This back and forth checking in actually helps promote equanimity. Ommm!
  • If you’ve had a bad run or workout, label it as such, experience the anger or uncertainty, and sleep on it. Another helpful mantra: nothing lasts forever. Tomorrow is another day. Or even, the next moment is another moment.

By using mindfulness, we are able to change our relationship to pain and discomfort. As you improve in labeling the anticipation rather than reacting to it, you may actually find that you look forward to the mystery that lies ahead in the future.

Do you struggle with anticipatory running pain? 

We’re thinking of our dear friend Dill today as she grieves the loss of her beloved mother ?

I'm a competitive runner and mental health professional. I write about mindfulness, my own experiences with depression and anxiety, and the professional sport of running. I'm currently trying to figure out the marathon while also continuing to race (and enjoy) the shorter distances.

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19 comments

  1. So this! I was actually just posting on Maple’s IG this morning about my jealousy for her being done her tempo run while I still had mine to do tomorrow. This is part of why I much prefer doing my long runs on Saturday morning instead of Sundays. I really appreciate all the tips

    1. Good to hear! I used to think Tuesdays always had to be speed work days but lately, I’ve been playing around with Wednesdays and Saturdays, too. Mixing things up every once in a while can also help with anticipatory pain – it keeps you guessing!

  2. I was running with Jasmine today and we were talking about this. One of the downsides of gaining experience racing is that your brain starts associating racing and pain. One of the great things about being new to competitive running is that you don’t yet know what you’re in for so you don’t go through as much pre-race anxiety or anticipatory pain. The experience of racing can trigger previously latent anxiety and anticipatory pain feelings. Any thoughts on that?

    1. Where’s my thinking emoji? I can see this applying to newbies who are also blessed in the genetic department and running fast may even come easy to them for a while OR they actually don’t find the pain painful – like those that like seeing how far to the well they can go. For so long I assumed that to run fast, you should be relaxed BUT that relaxed meant pain free. Now seeing how totally untrue this is, I’ve been able to change my relationship to it. I would agree that racing can definitely bring about more anxiety. We’ll need to chat about this on Sunday!

  3. I prefer to do speedwork in the evenings but I totally spend the entire day dreading it. I just remind myself that the same thing happens EVERY. SINGLE. WEEK. and that it’s always fine. Suck it up, Bertha!

    I’ve done the pre-race excuse playlist, too, more than once. I find it helps if I have a defined race plan of some sort (usually based on how I feel, not specific paces) and some sort of mantra to go with it, that way I can replace the negative thoughts.

    Also a fan of the, “If you go another half-mile, you can take a break.” Or, “Go another half-mile out and you can turn around.” And then resist.

    1. Yes, breaking it into little chunks is great! For my upcoming track race, I plan to tell myself, “just three more laps”, and then reassess. I think the race is 17 or so brutal laps lol. This will come in handy!

  4. I often have anticipatory pain before my tempo workouts. I’m getting better though because I have yet to have a bad tempo this training cycle. Each week I remind myself of how I was also tired the previous week and how I felt amazing after it. I did an interval workout when I was sick by going out for a couple “easy” miles and when they ended up feeling fine, I did killer speedwork instead! Thanks for the mental tips, Ging!

  5. Definitely been there before, many times! I feel like it’s directly related to anticipatory running excuses. Leading up to workouts or races, I feel like the brain LOOKS for things that could potentially cause it to go bad creating this list of excuses why it won’t go well. This is something, that bugs me more so when I see it come out in terms of pre-race excuses(also, sandbagging). It’s like coming up with a reason before the race why you might not PR which lowers yours or others expectations- and then you have a reason/excuse if it doesn’t go well…and “omg amazing pushing through despite said excuse and made it happen anyways”.

    For me focusing on eliminating any excuses- or stopping from making myself a “victim” before a race or workout really helps. When I find myself doing it, I remind myself I’m not a victim of anything but myself and to just get out there and do what I can. More often than not this mindset helps get me motivated and empowered to do a run instead of finding reasons why I shouldn’t or why it won’t go well.

    Though, there are definitely times where my inner bertha gets the best of me- certainly not perfect by any means!

    1. Interesting points, Barley! I wonder if this is why some runners will sandbag but then come out of nowhere and have this amazing race and be like, “I wasn’t even in shape! I don’t know where that came from?!” I’ve never had that experience, lol. But you make me think that maybe they are in fact in shape but downplay it to protect the ego from possibly being bruised from a tough workout or race.

  6. I totally have dealt with this. I don’t have an easy answer except to start. Just lower your expectations until you warm up enough and shake off those nerves.

    1. When I’m feeling it, I do something similar. Instead of x miles, I tell myself it’s ok to do x – y miles instead and then usually I feel fine and do x miles anyway! But it’s a little silly mental trick to get me there :)

      1. I do this all the time. Coach gives me ranges for a lot of days, so I almost always start by telling myself to just do the smaller amount if I’m not feeling it, even thought I KNOW I’ll end up doing the max.

  7. Great tips! Every once in a while I suffer from the “ugh I really don’t feel like it” thoughts, which of course are really anticipatory pain (or at least anticipatory boredom and discomfort) thoughts. Usually I tell myself that whether I feel like it right now or not is not relevant. I think i also tend to feel entitled to a good run every time I go out, but we all know that’s not how life works :)

    1. Yes! Like if a run doesn’t feel good it means something is wrong. Meditating helped me see this because it teaches that not every session is going to feel calm and peaceful. It’s actually not the point!

  8. This is so helpful today. I am coming back to running after a nasty bout of plantar fasciitis and before nearly every run, I get worried that my foot is going to hurt. Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t, but I know the fretting isn’t helping matters. I had a great run two days ago and I think it helped that I told myself nearly the whole time “Stay right here.” Meaning, focus on the present moment that is pain-free, not all the runs that have hurt or the potential of hurt later in this run. Just this step, right here. I am running again later today and I had already started worrying about it. Not helpful, so I will try some of this mindfulness you speak of and see how it goes. Thanks!