Fear: The Ultimate Performance Drug

I've been hearing a lot of fear lately in relatives and friends. It's not about global warming, the economy, or terrorism. It's about how they are going to perform in a race.

It started when a relative rattled off a laundry list of why he might not participate in this year's Bolder-Boulder 10K - a recurring pain in his leg, not enough time to train, the hassle of finding a parking space, not liking the wave he might be placed in because he doesn't have a qualifying time. But his real reason, he divulged, is he fears that he won't run under a time he picked out of thin air.

Then my wife said she was worried that she hasn't gotten enough running milage in to run the Bolder-Boulder as fast as last yearbecause of the rough winter. So she is picking up her milage with six weeks to go before the race, easier with the days getting longer and the weather warmer. Actually, she ran a lot this winter (once at 8 above) and worked out hard with weights and an elliptical on most days she didn't run.

Then my daughter, a nurse with two young kids and a challenging work schedule and who was preparing to run a 30K trail race, said she was worried that she might "bonk" because she wasn't getting in enough mileage. I was immediately skeptical about that because I'd gone on a couple of trail runs (one which goes straight uphill for the first three miles) with her two months ago and she flew away from me like I was standing still. (No surprise, she ran the race last week and did great.)

Then a work colleague, who is going to walk the Bolder-Boulder, said she was worried she's be forced off the course for not finishing in the allotted time, like she was a few years earlier, which was humilitating and discouraging. I asked a couple of questions and learned she has been walking more than ever for several months becasue she had moved from the snowbound mountains onto the plains where there were some great trails, and might be in the best shape she's been in for a long time.

I know their fear. With six weeks to the Bolder-Boulder, I'm trying to lose a couple of pounds and put in more time road running, less on trails and doing stength training. My knees feel the miles on the asphalt. I worry: Can I get my pace figured out so I don't start out too fast? Can I beat last year's time?

What's ironic (and sort of funny) is that we reach goals by fearing we won't. Maybe we don't always reach them, but fear get us closer to them. Fear of failure motivates us to train harder, or start training earlier and more systematically, or sacrifice a desert or beer or two, or raise our pain threshold a little.

Like any performance enhancing drug, fear must be used in moderation. Too much can lead to injury because you try to go too fast or too long before you're physically ready. And it can create counter-productive performance anxiety, like that which elite runner Kara Goucher describes so honestly in "Mind Gains" in March 2010 Runner's World.

But fear is really our friend. When you to step up to the starting line, the nervousness and anticipation you feel are the miraculous alchemy of your fear turning into adrenaline as the fight or flight response kicks in. When you hear the starting gun fire and take that first step, you have chosen to fight, and the adrenaline will help you perform the best you could that day.

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