Pre-workout anxiety is real and here's what to do about it.

Workout anxiety: why do we feel nervous and anxious before a workout or run?

Posted by for Wellbeing

If you feel on-edge in the hours leading up to your gym session or wake up feeling nervous about going for a jog, you’re not alone. But where does this pre-workout anxiety come from and how can we beat it? 

I’ve been working out regularly since I was 21. After a whole decade of running, rowing, lifting, squatting and downward dogging, fitness has become my main source of self-care. So why then, do I feel so nervous every time I’m getting ready for a run or workout?

When we talk about building confidence in running or at the gym, one of the key things we’re often told to remember is that no one else cares what we do. If you’re nervous at the prospect of other people watching you, you can rest safe in the knowledge that they’re all too busy thinking about themselves. But in my experience, that doesn’t help much. I’m not nervous because I’m worried about other people; I’m often worried about myself.

In my experience, pre-workout anxiety comes down to two things: catastrophising (‘what if a run feels a lot harder than usual?’) and confusing natural spikes of cortisol with fear. We need the stress hormone cortisol just to get out of bed in the morning; it only becomes a problem when we start to produce excessive amounts of cortisol. That can happen if we’re doing HIIT regularly on top of a stressful job, if we’re planning a sprint session after a rubbish night’s sleep or if we’re already feeling in a jangly mood and down half a cafetiere of coffee.

Sometimes we don’t even know why we feel nervous. We can do everything ‘right’ and still feel like we can’t relax until our exercise is done and we’re riding high on endorphins.

It’s not just us mere mortals who can experience pre-exercise jitters either; even fitness professionals get a little nervous. “I experience pre-run anxiety to an extent, but I generally put those nerves down to excitement and intrigue,” says Peloton instructor Becs Gentry.

Nerves show you care about the result

Importantly, Gentry tells Stylist that it’s not always a bad thing to feel like that. “If there’s a specific goal to be achieved in the workout, it’s great to have some nerves as they can be adrenaline” that results in us wanting to put the hard work in.

“Pre-race nerves show you care about the outcome,” she explains – something worth remembering whether you’re taking part in a 5k parkrun or the London Marathon. If you want to put effort in and you’re bothered about trying your best, the chances are that you will feel nervous. To calm the mind on the day, Gentry advises: “Focus on the training that you have completed and the fact that this is one day which will be the culmination of a whole training schedule.”

That means remembering that whether you’ve completed a 14-week marathon plan or a month-long Couch to 5k, the final run in question is your victory lap. The hard work is done, there’s nothing really to worry about.

Everyday nerves versus performance anxiety

Dr Josephine Perry, sports psychologist and author of Performing Under Pressure agrees with Gentry that a few nerves are good for competition. “They switch us on ready for action,” she says. Performance anxiety, however, is when we start to doubt that we’re actually able to do what we’re planning on doing. 

It’s then that our threat system kicks into action – sending our hearts beating, our sweat pouring and our bellies churning. Dr Perry explains: “When we feel under threat, the amygdala (the bit that controls our emotional behaviour) in our brain sends adrenaline and cortisol around our body. These chemicals get us ready for fight, flight or freeze so we can handle the scary thing we are facing.”

Our amygdala doesn’t know if that scary thing is a 7.15am circuit class, a voluntarily-entered marathon or a grizzly bear that’s about to eat us. Because of that, we can experience seemingly disproportionate responses to everyday activities, like going to the gym. The key isn’t to try to stop the nerves, but reducing the stress reaction when those symptoms start to hit.

“When we notice we are starting to get over-activated, some breathing exercises can be really good to slow down our breaths,” Dr Perry says. She explains that when we’re calm, we normally breathe up to 15 breaths a minute; in panic-mode, that can go up 22.  

Understanding the stress cycle of cortisol production and reduction

It’s important to point out that regular exercise has been found to have a positive impact on people living with anxiety disorders, with various studies showing that exercise reduces anxiety in clinical settings

There’s also plenty of evidence to show that we release relaxing and euphoric endorphins when we move; exercise raises levels of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which repairs brain cells damaged by stress and depression.

The issue is that during or before a workout, cortisol levels can rise and if you do live with panic or anxiety issues, you may find that increase can lead to an attack. The way to get around that, paradoxically, may be to exercise more frequently. Back in 2013, the National Institute of Mental Health found that the more aerobic exercise you do (running, for example), the less sensitive your stress response systems become. Oh, and it also calms that pesky amygdala while increasing cortical glutamate and GABA, which are calming neurotransmitters. 

The point here is that we can’t allow feelings of anxiety to stop us from moving because as many of us know, exercise can quickly reduce those jitters. And even if you live with chronic anxiety and panic attacks, moving often can help the body dull those overactive reactions. If you do have an anxiety or panic disorder, it’s definitely worth chatting to your GP before embarking on a new fitness routine or working with a PT who specialises in mental health. 

How to reduce pre-workout anxiety

You’ve got a number of options if you are struggling with nerves ahead of a workout:

  1. Breathe: try Dr Perry’s colourful breathing technique, which she uses for calming professional athletes. Pick two colours that you love. Breathe in the first colour for four seconds through the nose, hold for two seconds and breathe out the second colour through the mouth for six. Repeat until you feel calmer.
  2. Change what kind of exercise you do: if you’re worried about running or gym time, maybe start adding more yoga, cycles, walks into your regime to take the pressure off. Maybe your cortisol levels are already high enough and you need a more relaxing way of moving.
  3. Have everything planned: if you tend to exercise before work, have your kit all laid out and your bag packed so that you literally have to roll out of bed and into the gym. If you workout after work, put on your sports bra at the start of the day so that you’re already partly ready to go once you put down tools. Taking away the extra stress of getting ready may help.
  4. Work out the worst-case scenarios: anxiety is frustrating because, for the most part, we know it’s nonsense. What’s the worst that can happen when you go for a run? You may die but that’s highly unlikely. You might stack it… but you could lift your feet up to avoid that happening. You could pull a muscle, if you don’t warm up sufficiently. Spending just a couple of minutes having that kind of logical conversation with yourself can be soothing and may even help you to perform better.
  5. Reduce other stressors: if you drink a lot of coffee, think about reducing or switching to decaf. You probably can’t control the number of Zoom meetings you have, but you can make the decision to stop work on time, take a full lunch break and mute social media notifications on your phone. If you need to have a good night’s sleep before a gym session, carve out non-negotiable nights in for making food, having a bath and an early night.

Ultimately, moving our bodies should feel good; running, lifting, swimming – whatever it may be – shouldn’t leave us feeling like nervous wrecks. A little anxiety before a workout can give us a boost but too much and it’s time to look at where those feelings are coming from. 

Reduce those nerves by throwing the odd home workout into your regime. Hop over to the Strong Women Training Club to join one of our zero-pressure classes.

Images: Getty

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Miranda Larbi

Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.

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