Performance Anxiety or Time to Readjust that High-Reaching Goal?

performance anxiety
How do you handle performance anxiety?

I’ve been talking a big game and I’m starting to regret it.

So I’ve been training my ass off for the Brooklyn Half Marathon, running more mileage than I ever have for a half and doing it while I was working, which, since my job is physically draining, is pretty damn impressive. And now, as I’m starting to peak, my work schedule has eased off just in time and things should seem easier, right?  But the other day while I was knocking out a mile repeat workout in the park, I opened my mouth and blurted out:

“But I don’t want to run that fast for thirteen miles!”

Been there?

Okay, I don’t mean have you ever whined at yourself out loud in public like a bratty little kid. What I mean is, have you ever felt, especially as your peak training draws closer, like you’re in completely over your head and you just want to bail?

Okay, so here’s the back story:

I’ve been yakking on and on to people about how I’m gonna shoot for 1:45:00 at the Brooklyn Half. 1:45:00 isn’t an arbitrary number, it’s roughly the half marathon one would run if one were capable of a 3:35:00 full marathon one season later.  You may be wondering why that is significant; I’ll let you draw your own conclusions. I’m all set to run the Wineglass Marathon in upstate New York this fall, which is a one-way, net downhill course, and known to be one of the fastest marathon courses in the East.  I’m not totally optimistic that this is my year for that 3:35, but I can damn well try, and scoring a 1:45 half this spring will really push me over the edge to believing I can do it.

To some this will all seem like a piece of cake; to others, a hugely daunting undertaking.  I fall in the latter category, since my current recorded half marathon PR is 1:54:29, and that was only a year ago.  And for much of that year I was laid up from training due to an injury.

Yep. I’m shooting for almost a 10 minute PR.  On a comeback.

And now that I’m reaching peak training I’m starting to feel like a real ass–partially for biting off more than I can chew, but mostly for telling a whole sh*tload of people that I’m going to do something that is going to be so ridiculously hard for me.

The numbers say I should be good to go.  I’ve put in the training, done the speed work, and 8 minute miles are now a fairly comfortable pace for me.  According to Jeff Galloway’s Magic Mile and other race time predictions I should be able to knock out a half marathon somewhere between 1:46 and 1:50. And what’s more, I believe.  I’d sing it from the mountaintops if I could: I can run a half marathon in an hour and forty-five minutes!!!  Hear the echoes?

Okay, so believing can’t get me there if my body just can’t do it.  I know that.  I’m not stupid, after all, I know I need to put in the effort to yield the results.  And part of that effort is healing from my injury.

I really really thought that, after over a year of nagging, this injury thing was done.  But lately the faster I move, the more my knee starts to argue.  It has these little twitches and flare-ups.  It feels…yucky. I don’t know how to explain it. It’s all like, “Yo! Ease up on the gas there, speedy!” And I’m all like, “Come on dude, just give me a few more weeks and I’ll give you a whole week off!”

Is it just nerves?  Am I way overestimating my abilities?  I mean, it’s a 10 minute PR; that’s kind of nuts.  Maybe I’m perfectly capable of it, the way the numbers say I should be?  Maybe my knee is mental pain that’s manifesting as a way to bail on the race?  I mean, I really feel like I want to bail.

I don’t want to run and fall short and disappoint myself.

Is this performance anxiety or my inner voice telling me to readjust my goals? Ever been there? How did you decide whether to shut up and go for it or to readjust your expectations?

Cinnamon made Salty Running, takes lots of pictures and drinks lots of coffee. By day she's a camera assistant for films and tv in New York, and by night she's on a quest for zen in the 10k. Her writing is a mix of satirical humor, finding wholeness as an average runner, cheering for runners at all paces and more.

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  1. Could you run a 10:00 PR this year? Yes. You’ve trained consistently before this race, so you should be considerably faster than you were last year when you jumped in the race and ran the 1:54.

    That being said, this is a really interesting question and one I think a lot of us ask at some point in our training. I have a question for you: what harm is there in always assuming its performance anxiety and going for it? I have another question for you: do you have your excuses for not achieving your goals lined up long before even finishing the race?

    To me it seems like it’s time to take a deep breath, relax and take a look at the big picture.

    Dreaming big, really big is great. But, when many of us have to be careful not to get caught up in numbers as they apply to a particular race. Fixating on that and being too invested in the race result puts a lot of negative pressure on us and can lead to anxiety (!) and negative self-talk. I think a better way to handle the big dream goals and the races leading up to achieving them is this:

    “for this race my goal is to take a step toward achieving my big dream goal.”

    Try that on. How does it feel to say “For the Brooklyn half my goal is to take a step closer to getting my BQ.”

    Does it feel better than “For the Brooklyn half I have to run a 1:45?”

    I also think it would benefit you to reread this post 🙂

  2. I agree with Salty. The whole paragraph on dreaming big is spot on. I absolutely love her quote ” for this race my goal is to take a step toward achieving my dream big goal”. I think so many times I have set myself up for failure because I put too high of an expectation on myself. I have come to realize, that achieving a big goal is not one single process, but more a culmination of many mini-goals along the way. I have found that when I go into a race more relaxed and have the attitude that says “I am going to give my best effort today” instead of having the attitude that says “I must hit this pace or I must hit this exact time”, I always end of doing better and I am much happier. I train hard and I know that I have the ability to meet the goals that I set. But, I also want to enjoy racing and not dread my next race. I have a sub 20 5K, a 3:30 marathon, and a 1:35 half looming over my head. I haven’t gotten them yet, and have come so close, but what I am developing along the way is confidence. The more I race and the more I race happy, the more confident I become.

    1. I agree, Michelle, but I also think Mint makes a great point – it’s important to be realistic. Having done a little more speed work since this post popped into my head, I now think I need I do need to lower the bar just a tad (I’m a left-brained runner through and through, and I need those time and pace goals to motivate my race), but you’re so so right about focusing on my effort rather than my time as the goal. If I do my best, it won’t matter what time I run, it’ll still be the best I had to give that day.

      Thanks for your feedback!

  3. I think this is an important question to ask if you are having second thoughts before a big race. We train hard for months, but the truth is, sometimes we simply aren’t ready for the race we are hoping for or the time we have announced to the world. While mental toughness can go a long way, it can’t carry you to a PR if you aren’t physically there. Let’s face it, not every season is going to be a PR season – no matter how much we want it to be.

    I was in a similar boat this season. No matter how much I would have loved a PR in the half, I KNEW I was not physically in PR shape last weekend. As Salty suggested, I went for it anyway though because why the heck not? Truthfully, I wasn’t 100% invested in the goal anyway (which is probably why I never pushed myself into PR shape this season). So I was good with getting out there and seeing what happened, let the chips fall as they may.

    But there IS some danger in this go-for-it anyway approach because there can be a lot of harm in going for it when you are not physically ready. If you are running longer distances, particularly the marathon, and go out too fast for your fitness, you will really, really suffer the last 6-8 miles. It sucks. A LOT. You’ll have a much better race (and one you’ll be much prouder of) if you adjust your goal by 10-15 seconds per mile than if you blast out and blow up. The half isn’t quite as bad because it is easier to fight through the last 3-4 miles, but it can still be very painful and dejecting if you have your heart set on a certain goal time and fall apart. Are you mentally ready for a terrible race? Sometimes you may be ready to just go for it, but sometimes you aren’t. If you’ve had a few bad races in a row, you probably are not and certainly should probably rethink your goals.

    While it is great to dream big, I think it is also important to be smart and to honestly evaluate where you are. Are you just nervous? Maybe – go back and look at your training log and your tune-up races if you did any.

    Or are you not quite there yet physically? Be honest.

    If you aren’t there physically, maybe you should try to race without worrying about the time as others have suggested. But realistically, that can be very hard for some of us. (it would be for me). So maybe you should readjust your time goal by a few minutes. Who knows, maybe you’ll feel awesome at mile 9 and be able to negative split your race?

    1. Oh my gosh, I’m so glad you mentioned that you have a hard time ignoring the time goals too, I was beginning to feel like a crazy person. I’m SUCH a left-brained runner. I think I find calm in running the numbers in my head over and over!

  4. I just ran a 7 minute PR on my half, so I don’t think a 10 minute PR is out of the question. That being said if you are having nagging pain I think it’s definitely a concern, especially if you have a big picture goal. The thing with a big picture goal is that all of your smaller step up goals should be in support of that larger goal. Yes a 1:45 race is a step on the way to a 3:35 marathon, but getting injured is about 3 steps back. So I think the question you have to ask is pushing for a 1:45 right now going to open you up to a greater risk of injury that will put you further away from your big goal and is that risk worth it? I would at least go see a Physical Therapist and get there opinion on your knee before tackling the distance at that speed.

    I struggled with the same questions before my last race when my coach gave me the option of going for a sub 1:40 or waiting until later in the season to try to tackle it. I wasn’t sure if I leaned towards the slower time because I was afraid or because it really was the right decision but I erred on the side of caution and ran an awesome race (with a 7 minute PR).

  5. You’re right about the injury being 3 steps back for sure, and my concerns about that are 75% of this anxiety. Unfortunately I have to pay out of pocket for any medical treatment whatsoever and…well…I’m broke and can’t afford to return to physical therapy. I don’t think there’s anything my therapist could tell me now that he didn’t tell me back when I was originally injured anyway. It sucks being uninsured and underemployed.

    I think the answer for me is to dial it back just a teench, much like you did. And like Salty and Michelle said, re-focusing my attitude on doing my best is making me realize I’ll honestly be happy with a 1:50 this time around…so I’m gonna split the difference and shoot for 1:48, I think. I’ll have a better shot at making it and like Mint said, If I’m feeling really great I can always negative split at the end!

    Thanks for sharing your killer PR – it goes such a long way toward my confidence in shooting for a drastic PR myself!

  6. I’m in the same boat. Planning to run the Cleveland Marathon in a couple of weeks. My goal is 3:15 which still sounds fast to me, however all of my training is lining up with this as are recent race times, like a 10 miler in 1:07. I’ve told 3:15 to many people and now am starting to feel the pressure of actually hitting it. This is the first marathon I’ve trained specifically for, so I’m not real sure what to expect.

  7. This isn’t about training at this point. It’s about your mind. You need some cognitive coping strategies to deal w/ the negative voices, the self doubt. And you need a fatigue strategy for the race, to deal with those voices when start harping at you. I too am going after a massive PB this wkd in a marathon and I’ve told everyone about my goals, to hold my feet to the fire. But, as I feel myself getting tired or doubting in the race, I will do three things
    1) conjure up imagery (something that works for you, colour, animal, fav person, hero) that makes you think of what you should be doing to relax and run well ie. relax shoulders, engage glues, get back on pace
    2) think of a tactical problem (route through the course; pass a person; take fuel)
    3) think about what you need emotionally at that moment (powerful self talk)

    By the time you finish that cycle, you’ll be back on track & in a good head space. BUT, you have to prep this mental work before the race. And break the half down into at least 4 sections and anticipate how you’ll feel in each and how you’ll react in each — and what your response will be for each.

    You’ll run strong mentally… are some more tips:

    Remember, if you’ve done the training, you can do it in a race. And if you taper properly, you’ll be stronger than you ever were in training when race pace felt hard. Get your mind on side to run strong with you.
    All the best!

  8. A: I’ve definitely whined out loud during a speed workout. In fact, I probably cursed and said “this really sucks.” Since I do speed workouts on a treadmill, I’m pretty sure everyone in the gym thought I was crazy that way. I like to view it as an endearing quality…

    B: I think you know at the core whether this is performance anxiety (or lack of insurance anxiety) or a true fitness/injury issue. I’m the queen of overthinking things, but maybe that’s what you are doing here. See how you feel in the few days leading up to race day, stick with your plan until then, and feel it out!