Stress and the Runner: It’s All in Your Attitude

Hoo boy, check this amazing TED Talk by psychologist Kelly McGonigal: “How to make stress your friend.”

McGonigal teaches at Stanford School of Medicine and Stanford Graduate School of Business, where she spent 10 years preaching the evils of stress. Then she found research that showed it isn’t stress that can kill us, but our response to the stress in our lives.

It’s research with major implications for runners.

It reflects something you’ve probably experienced: it isn’t the setbacks, obstacles, injuries, and disappointments of running that can bring us down or build us up – it’s how we deal with them.

The new stress research shows that people who respond to stress with fear and resentment have a much greater chance of dying as a result of the stress in their lives, but people who welcome the challenge of stressful events have no increased mortality risk at all.

The new research tells us is that our attitude is a tremendous factor in whether stress helps or harms us.

We’re on a scheduled slow recovery run. We come to a construction zone where the road narrows and we must speed up to get through before the next car approaches. It’s annoying, because the road slopes uphill. But our mind does a bump and suddenly sees the obstacle as an adventure. We speed up and feel the joy of overcoming a small challenge – you bet we can make it past the construction mess before the next car rounds the corner!

I’m reminded of an ultra where a small tweak in my attitude made a major difference in how I experienced the rest of the race

It was the Quicksilver 50-Mile Race, on a hilly course in the Coastal Range near San Jose.

Thirty miles into the event, I trotted into an aid station, to find that my drop bag, which contained my precious running fuels, hadn’t been delivered.

I was pissed. It was the most critical part of the race – I really needed those fuels to get through the last 20 miles. I confess that I showed my irritation, briefly, to the aid station personnel.

But then my brain and heart did a wonderful thing. Operating at lightning speed, they evaluated the embarrassed expressions on the helpers’ faces, accepted that the situation wouldn’t change even if I yelled at them, and quickly switched gears and began scanning the fuels available on the aid station table.

I smiled to the helpers and said cheerfully, “Well, then, hey – adapt and survive!” One helper replied, “That’s a great attitude!” I grabbed a handful of brownies and a cup of race drink and proceeded merrily down the trail.

My behavior at the aid station was a long-practiced response. For years, I had honed my ability to turn bummers into blessings, and it came through as a near-automatic reaction.

There’s a fine article in a recent issue of Running Times: “The Running Machine Myth: How the body adapts to create efficiency and injury resistance.”

The author, John Kiely, describes how top coaches have discovered that deliberately introducing unusual stressors into a runner’s training stimulates the body to become more adept at handling the stress of racing, and contributes to overall fitness.

It’s similar to the point of McGonigal’s TED talk, that confronting stress positively makes us strong.

Standing at the base of a hill, you spy two alternate routes to the top, and you take the more adventurous one – the one with a steeper slope, with more roots and rocks, that covers a longer distance. You don’t do it for scientific reasons or to improve fitness, but because you know it will give you more joy.

The stress research suggests that doing difficult and unusual things with willingness and spirit is a fine way to improve fitness and fulfillment. Whatever forces us to produce energy, courage, and enthusiasm is a blessing.

“Oh – but I can’t.” That’s the devilish response to stress – the response that can literally kill us.

As Kelly McGonigal puts it, stress is meant to teach us an important lesson: “Chasing meaning is more important than avoiding discomfort.”

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