CBT For Runners: Reduce Anxiety And Pre Race Stress

What fun; the persistent hammering of a devilish monkey trapped in your head. It is like a ship in a small bottle, you wonder how on earth it got in there!?  A slap from your own hand won’t ease its fun; uncontrolled thoughts are like free bananas encouraging it’s rampage! You are standing there wondering, are any of these runners dealing with the same monkey I am?

Pre race anxiety…

It is widely known in any athletic pursuit: Sports Psychology is key. So if we know this to be true, how do we go about working on it?  One method, is CBT – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – and despite its long name, its action based approach is sweet and simple.

What is CBT? Cognition And Behaviourism Combined

Cognitive Behavior Therapy concept

The Behavioural aspect to CBT emerged in 1924. There were three individuals responsible for understanding how to conquer fear: John B Watson, Rosalie Rayner and Mary Cover Jones. This was further developed, with the studies of systematic desensitisation; a Psychologist by the name of Joseph Wolpe, found that exposing a cat to what it fears, reduces the anxiety response. This was then proven to work on Humans too. 

  The Cognitive aspect, started to merge with the behavioural, when Aaron T Beck realised people’s unhealthy thought patterns were not always unconscious. Emotional distress was often caused by types of thinking.

 Merge the two together and you get CBT.

  CBT can be put to use when your mind is hindering your potential. You could think of trying CBT if you notice the following:

  • Excessive negative thinking.
  • Catastrophizing – I.e. small mistakes being blown out of proportion.
  • Blaming yourself excessively, or other’s.

The next logical question for us runners is: Does it work in sport? 

CBT Working In A Sports Environment – View Threats As Challenges

A Psychologist was called into a high level Women’s Hockey team, to test whether CBT can help with stress management, and in turn, improve performance. The process was to cognitively restructure the ways they thought – this was done by understanding the emotional stress and then looking at alternate ways of viewing it.

 Leeds Beckett University. “Cognitive behavioral therapy could help stress in sport.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 10 May 2017. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/05/170510101331.htm>.

  The results were very positive. The initial threat response the athletes were having, was now being reframed as a challenge to be overcome – resulting in more positive emotions!

The following is a testimony from one of the players saying how it improved her game:

“If I’m thinking about stressors as a challenge not a threat then I play better. I learnt how to see things as a challenge, which has helped my performance.”

Try Cognitive Restructuring Yourself – More Positive Emotion, And Fear Reduction

It is shown that CBT can have benefits in Sport. So what can you do yourself to try it out? It may be better for some to work with a trained CBT practitioner; this way you are held accountable each week to make progress. You are guided by someone who knows the ins and outs. But for the bold who want to venture alone, there is nothing wrong with that. The benefit to doing it alone is that it’s free! This allows you to use any spare time to work on unhelpful thought patterns.

  Here is an example of how you could try your own CBT. (For the record, I am not a trained Psychologist. I have just had experience testing CBT out.)

  So let’s imagine you have an upcoming Ultra. You have never been keen on hill work, and this Ultra has some steep hill sections. A belief you may have developed is “I am bad at running hills.” This may come up as an automatic thought whenever you run hills, as it has become habitual over time. How would CBT break this down? 

 Firstly, you could look at the validity of the reasons behind why you feel bad at hills.

  • If every hill you have ever run, you have failed at, then perhaps it is a valid belief (Highly unlikely!) But let’s look at reality. You have likely pushed through a lot of tough hill sessions, showing your grit and resolve. That is based in reality. 
  • You can continue to dig deeper into the reasons behind the belief, and really separate the wheat from the chaff as to what is true: This will leave you on solid ground.
  • To Summarize: Find which thoughts and beliefs stand on solid reasoning, and which don’t. Build a house on sand and it will fall down; concrete sounds preferable.

  Another CBT technique is to start developing alternate views. So for the hill example, you could ask yourself: How else could I view this? 

  • Hills are a chance for me to improve a weakness. 
  • Hills are opportunities to prove something to myself. 

There is a large number of ways you can reframe a thought, and it is whatever motivates you! 

  An example of someone taking this to the extreme, is the strong man Eddie Hall. When he did the 500kg deadlift, he had Psychologists help him frame his perspective when walking up to the bar. He had to have in his mind that it was life or death. He was in survival mode. The scenario created in his mind(he hasn’t revealed what it was, as it was very dark), allowed him to tap into every reservoir of strength. This shows how malleable your mind can be when you are motivated for something.






Leeds Beckett University. “Cognitive behavioral therapy could help stress in sport.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 10 May 2017. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/05/170510101331.htm>.

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