I was standing on an empty street. A grey January day but not cold. I’d run here from home. The plan said a 15-min warmup and that’s what I’d done. Just shy of two miles beginning with a jog until my breathing settled in, gradually picking up the pace with some downhill running that had got as quick as I was going to need for my first effort.
So now I wandered up and down the street. A minute to the lamp-post eighty metres away then a minute back. Two minutes wouldn’t be long enough to clear any lactate built up during warm-up. I decided to do another trip to the lamp-post and back.
As I reached the lamp-post, I now cued myself into what I was about to do. Six hundred metres at 6:18/mile pace, anywhere from 6:15 to 6:20 would be good enough. Jog the recovery then a five hundred metre effort at the same 6:18 pace with another jog to recover. Then it would get interesting. Four hundred metres followed by three efforts of three hundred metres all at a faster pace – 5:50/mile. Could I do these? I’d struggled to hit pace last Thursday on similar efforts over only two hundred metres. I’d run strides on Tuesday less than 48 hours earlier, did I overdo it? Would my legs be fresh enough to hit target? I needed to go out on the six hundred at the correct pace or risk jeopardising the later intervals. My mind whirred. Not overly anxious but enough thoughts to start getting on my nerves.
I called a halt to it. “Let’s see how it goes” I said to myself and instantly all the thoughts were gone. I was back in the present, walking the street on a grey January day. If I failed to hit target then so be it. I’d have some decisions to make about whether to adjust the plan or just put it down to fatigue from previous sessions. If I hit target it would be great as I’m on schedule. “But let’s just see how it goes” I told myself. The unsaid follow-on being “then figure out what to do once I’ve got concrete information to work with. Let’s work with reality not a bunch of needless fears and anxieties swirling around”.
I went through a phase a few years where I got very Zen about life. I was able to simply say “It’s all just information. Whatever happens today is information about what to do next”. No longer did I interpret events or add my own narrative to them; I simply saw them for what they were and it was impossible to rile me up. The simple truth is no-one can make good decisions when they’re riled up. They might luck into a good decision while making a panic choice but more often than not, fear and anxiety lead to the wrong decisions. People play it safe to avoid their worst fears coming true.
“It’s all just information. Whatever happens today is information about what to do next.”
In my update on 800m training, I wrote about how I sometimes felt nervous, or low-level anxiety going into a session. This doesn’t relate to the pain of what’s about to occur, only whether I’m going to hit the targets I’ve set. For someone else maybe it would be a fear of the pain or breathlessness.
How do I get round this? It’s simple and effective. I stop worrying about those targets or goals, and say “Let’s see how it goes”. Doing that immediately brings me back into the present. All fear and anxiety comes from the past or the future, the present is the only moment where you can take action and make a difference.
Does this mean I don’t plan for the future? Not at all. But what I don’t do is emotionally engage with it. The moment you start worrying about what’s going to happen is when you have to recognise you’ve become distracted and refocus back to now. Once calm you can go back to planning. The better you get at this refocusing, the more it becomes second-nature.
Mindfulness was a big watchword a couple of years ago and what is it? It’s about becoming present in the moment. It’s a variation on meditation which is also about focusing on what is happening now. Next time you go to a race and start feeling nervous about whether you can win (or whether you’ll be last), bring yourself back to the present moment. In a calmer moment begin to explore why it would an issue not to win, or to be last. What would that mean to you? What consequences do you imagine may occur because of it? Uncover the underlying fear and then dissolve it by sitting with it. Commit to facing up to it.
There’s one period of my life where I remember experiencing extreme levels of anxious thinking. It was when I was twenty and my fear of not being able to handle an upcoming situation would begin a domino stream of consciousness with one thought leading to the next. The trigger could be any sort of thing. Maybe my manager had arranged a meeting with me the next day but not said what it was about. Maybe I’d be invited to a party, accepting because I didn’t know how to decline, now worried my social skills would be lacking. Maybe it was about taking something back to a shop.
Night time was often when those thoughts came because I kept myself too busy the rest of the day to address them. But in the dark, quiet of my room, the express train of thoughts would depart, setting off down the tracks at high speed. With the party or returning something to a shop I could stop it by making a negative decision – simply decide not to turn up or keep the defective item. Anxiety derailed by avoiding the situation; that was my go-to strategy, ultimately to my detriment.
But there was no way I could avoid a meeting with my manager so I’d start going through all the possible things I’d done at work recently. I’d explore and examine each situation, I’d come up with excuses or reasons about why I’d done what I’d done. I’d imagine the response I’d get and how I could counter it. Fatigued, eventually my mind tired of the “This happens … what do I do next?” game of Twenty Questions and I’d fall asleep. I had no idea how to stop this whirlwind of thinking other than by avoidance wherever possible. But the one thing I came to realise about facing up to the unavoidable was that, despite all the scenarios I thought up, none of them ever came to pass. Never. Not once. When the actual time came to confront whatever I was scared of, it always played out in a way I’d never imagined.
I’ve read countless testimonials from runners who wouldn’t go to parkrun (“I’ll be at the back”), or join a running club (“club runners are snobby”), or even just go for a run (“people will be looking at me”). Yet when they did these things, they found it was a completely different story. Parkrun was friendly and welcoming, the running club wasn’t elitist and running round their neighbourhood didn’t raise eyebrows. All the imagined consequences never came to pass. It’s exactly what I used to experience and they follow the same self-defeating pattern I did. They get involved in their ego’s perception of how it will play out and when that becomes too much, they go with an avoidance strategy (not going to parkrun, not joining the running club, not going for a run) to stop the anxious thinking. But in the process their life becomes one size smaller as they close down an option that could open up so many possibilities.
Like I said back at the beginning I now realise there’s a better way. It’s to stop trying to predict the future and to live in this moment. When the future finally arrives, I deal with it based on whatever shows up. It makes everything so much easier. When the anxious thinking kicks in, nip it in the bud as early as possible by committing to let the future unfold and see what happens.