This Is Your Runner Brain on Stress: The hormonal reason to all those pre-race nerves

The moments leading up to a race are this crazy mix of emotions: excitement, anticipation, terror??, chomping at the bit eagerness, hope, motivation, forced relaxation (attempted??)…flip, you name it! Poised at the starting line, every runner can relate to the feeling that they just may burst if that freaking starter doesn’t fire the gun! CRACK!!

Adrenaline, cortisone, hormones flooding the body. This is the internal environment of your body before the start of a race. This is stress on the body. I read an interesting article in Fast Company, it’s actually a business piece and questioning if the brain can actually be addicted to stress.

runner yelling track

This is your face yelling at the starter to just, “FIRE THE GUN!!”


After-all, stress puts the body into that fight or flight mode. I think everyone can relate to the rush you feel when you’ve waited until the LAST second to hit a deadline…some people are even convinced that their best stuff comes under that gun of procrastination. But stress is physical, the brain releases certain chemicals, the nervous system operates differently.

The same happens with runners. Many of those same chemicals are coursing through your veins leading up to races, and even workouts. We know those feelings, we know that buzz, and heck, I’ll totally agree that feeling is addictive. Why do you think us runners keep signing up for races, go out to nail that next workout, we love the rush that comes with it. Mostly the rush that comes AFTER…but the whole experience in itself is darn-right thrillingly addictive.

The problem though, is putting your body through that entire hormone/chemical crazed onslaught is wearing. Your body would literally explode (well, probably not literally actually) if it was in that heightened state forever. And the body DOES start to deteriorate if you put and keep it in that state for too long.

Runner Bones

Add some hormones to those bones and we’ve got it.


This is where runners get into trouble when they let their nerves get the better of them and they (literally) explode in races and workouts. Bwahahaha…when I say explode here, I’m actually meaning implode. They Bomb.

You have to keep all that nervous energy in check. As an athlete you need to, to a degree, control the release of all that adrenaline, cortisone, and all the other crazy hormones. Overriding that body’s natural instinct of fighting or flighting mode is difficult, and takes work. Naturally some athletes are just BETTER at mentally managing that, they’re the gamers. The trickier thing is, as with natural talents, describing HOW they do it isn’t something they can really put into words. They just DO it.

Though controlling your race and workout day nerves is still a skill that is totally possible. And just like mental toughness, it’s a skill that every runner continually hones and learning to get better at is a process. You find tricks that work, not everything works for everyone…and it’s like trial and error. This is where you take any and all bad races/workouts and use them to your benefit. Did I learn something that didn’t work here? Did I learn, then, what I’m going to try next time to make things work? Looking for key lessons from bad workouts includes both physical and mental things.

A bit of a personal thing here, I’ve always loved racing. That feeling is fan-freaking-tastic, and (this never happens, brace yourself, I never blatantly give myself a compliment. Ever. I’m working on that, but I’m petrified people will think I’m bragging! So I want to preface this with I’m not bragging, but this is something I’m kinda proud of.) when I was racing I was able to manage and handle that race day nervous energy well and perform better than my workouts suggested. So I’ll kinda share what I think helped me….I always remembered this:

Interestingly the calm slips away the moment the gun in fired. I think THAT, the wanting to just get into the calm zone, at least for me, was most of the reasons my skin would crawl, itch, buzz, wanting…craving the gun to just go off. Let’s just start doing this thing!!

Anticipation is always the worst feeling. In a roller coaster, it’s the anticipating the drop that sucks, the oddly freaky sensation of your stomach lifting, that’s the fun part. Just like running where we battle the love-hate relationship with the pain of racing, it’s a love-hate thing with that stomach dropping feeling. I think a big part of the nervous anticipation is that we KNOW there is a tug-of-war about to ensue…and we (hope we are!) want to be TOUGH enough when the true test comes. We know we’ve been tough before and loved/embraced that sensation…so we need to remind ourselves we will be just as mentally tough again and come through with sailing colors. Knowing that the crack of the gun will unleash the inner gamer in us all, is reassuring.

It’s the anticipating, wait for the gamer to come out, that makes us want to grab the starter pistol and fire it ourselves! With the CRACK come the relief…the release. The moment that happens, our bodies know what to do. What, as runners, we’ve conditioned them to do. With the crack of the gun we FINALLY, liberatingly are free of thinking.

1) Stress…love it, hate it, think you can be addicted to it?
2) Do you think runners are ‘addicted’ to the feeling of racing and workouts?
3) Do you think my little anticipation theory is anywhere close to something that resonates with you?

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4 thoughts on “This Is Your Runner Brain on Stress: The hormonal reason to all those pre-race nerves

  1. Cait, I agree with you completely. There is a weird kinda thrill pre-race that I haven’t found anywhere else. Personally I always feel a little sick before a race, which I have always put down to pre-race nerves or adrenaline, or both! But as soon as the race starts, that feeling dissipates and is replaced with energy – which pushes me forward. Agreed. It’s a weird feeling but quite addictive!

    • Sounds like you know EXACTLY what I’m talking about!! :) It’s so crazy the difference the second before and after that gun goes off makes…hehe.

  2. I have found that I avoid most things that cause me stress. I always leave for appointments and meetings early, If I can’t control something I remind myself of that fact. If something is causing stress (money, time, etc) I try to plan a solution or set goals so I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and this usually ends up limiting or reducing the stress caused. So to answer your question I am addicted to running, and racing, but not to stress. lol.

    • i’m right there…oh my gosh, with deadlines i ALWAYS want to be done way early. i joke about waiting until the last minute, but i’m the kind of person who can NOT deal with stress like a big deadline looming over my head. :P

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