How Much Can Stress Affect a Run?

I feel like I need to start this post with a disclaimer: I am not attempting to provide information about how stress affects running performance. Just wanted to get that out there in case you googled your way here hoping to be educated.

No, I’m trying to figure out if stress can be blamed for my craptastic run today. If you happen to have any intel on this, please let me know.

I’ve had a bad week. It starts off with me not liking Christmas very much (I really want to, but I find it difficult in large part because of my family of origin, which always stirs up tough feelings this time of year) and being annoyed that I haven’t been running outside due to weather. Add in the car-sliding-off-the-driveway incident on Wednesday and unplanned close to 4 hours of snow shoveling. And a seemingly tiny comment on my blog that implied I am a pessimist (I don’t think I am nor does anyone who knows me, but fuck all if my blog doesn’t make me look like a miserable asshole sometimes?) has made me feel all ooky and misunderstood and also castigating myself for not being a shiny happy people. (Totally not the commenter’s fault)

Plus, one more insult to my ego: I found my two first gray hairs. Ugh.

Then I did a tough workout on Friday. It actually went fine. I had a 3-2-1 tempo workout, which started with a 30 minute warm up followed by 3 miles at tempo pace, 5 minute jog, 2 mile tempo, 5 minute jog, and 1 mile tempo, finishing up with a 30 minute cool down.

To address my desire to start pushing me into “failure” so I can better find out my fitness level and help me push more in races, my coach suggested I increase effort throughout the workout. Therefore, I increased my pace within each tempo segment. My tempo goal range was 7:50-8:05.


You can see that I did what I set out to do, averaging a 7:49 tempo pace. It felt pretty hard, harder than I wanted it to, but my heartrate didn’t do anything nuts during the work segments (a 161 average), and it settled down during the recovery periods.

Saturday was a scheduled rest day, which was good because this is where I spent most of the day:

This is Tuft’s Hospital in Boston. My son was supposed to be on an Amtrak home from college yesterday and instead my husband and I had to go get him because he said he’d knocked himself out somehow.

Let me tell you, I understand why HIPAA exists, but I was extremely frustrated with it yesterday when I got kicked out of triage because my son didn’t want to answer certain questions in front of me. He was diagnosed with a concussion. He also missed two of his four finals. I wish I could say I was shocked, but the best I can say is that I am numb.

Anyway, we finally got home around 11pm last night after having picked at a salad for the entirety of my food for the day besides my normal breakfast of a banana, Clif Bar and coffee.

Today was long run day, and I was supposed to do 14-16 miles. I considered trying the park, but I figured that they probably wouldn’t have plowed the running paths and I didn’t feel like dealing with running on the roads stuffed with Christmas shoppers in their vehicles and being doused by melting slush.

I maybe regret the decision to treadmill it today. My run sucked. It was slow, my heart rate was elevated given the pace I was running, and when I tried slowing it down to a crawl and even taking some recovery breaks once I passed 6.25 miles, it still sucked. I’ve still got a lingering cough, and I’m not sure if it was just psychological or a real physical thing, but it felt like something was catching in my chest when I breathed. I kept thinking I should go to Urgent Care to get a chest xray, but the idea of sitting in a medical waiting room so close to yesterday’s experience sounded awful.

I tried to convince myself that the long run was about time on my feet, and if I could just string together 2-mile sets until I hit at least 14 miles, I was good.

Well, I tried. My heart rate at the end of mile 10 had steadily climbed to 153 despite that I was running a whopping 10-minute mile (as compared to Friday’s run where I was running a 7:25 at the end of the tempo segment and had a heart rate of 162). When I got towards the end of mile 11, I realized I was ridiculously sweaty given my pace, but I was also cold. Remember, I was indoors on the treadmill. There was no real reason for me to be cold and I was drinking plenty of fluids. I’d already refilled my water bottle.

I decided that it was time to call my run “done.”

Can I say how pissed off this has me? I’m so angry at, I dunno, everything. My run was supposed to help me de-stress and instead I’m doubting my ability to run. Because, of course, one lousy run means I’m no good.


I sound like a big, whiny loser here and like I’m making every excuse in the book for a shit run. And that all pisses me off too.

The upside, if here can possibly be one, is that although I am emotionally wretched right now and the idea that a drink would take the edge off did skitter through my alcoholic brain, it really and truly sounds like an abhorrent idea. Which sort of surprises me in a good way. I do feel like my mind was my biggest enemy today, so this is a silver lining.

To sum up my tale of self-pity, I am trying to understand how today’s run went so poorly. What I discovered is that running is decidedly not therapy for this runner. At least not when there is too much shit hitting the fan. I do think running can change your mood to something more positive and can help with outlook, but at the end of the day, you can’t outrun your troubles.


20 thoughts on “How Much Can Stress Affect a Run?

  1. Martha B says:

    I will come right out and say my piece – you are entitled to have a “shitty run” today. Seriously. I can’t imagine the stress you’re going through because I’m not a mom, but as someone who was very much like your son at his age, I know what I did to my parents. And I also know that it didn’t inspire them to get on the treadmill. So at least you have a positive coping mechanism. That being said, it sucks when your cure turns into a source of further stress. You are allowed to be stressed and miserable right now. I’m sorry you’re feeling that way, but there are times it’s inevitable. I hope you find time this week to go to the doctor and get your cough checked out… If anything it’s just another irritant you can not have to worry about. Hugs to you. Hope your week looks up.

    • Thank you for all of this. It is incredibly reassuring to hear that someone like you had been somewhat similar to my son and came out the other side a great person.

      I really do need to get this stupid cough checked out. It’s lingered way too long.

      • Martha B says:

        “Great person” might be overshooting the mark for me 🙂 But functional member of society who is more conscious of my actions and their impact on those around me works.
        Do you have an urgent care clinic or whatever? I did that last week and I was in and out in 15 minutes – apparently bronchitis is in this year.

  2. Goodness, woman, be nice to you! You had a really crappy week. You had a great attitude about shoveling all that snow, but that is a major workout. I can’t begin to imagine how stressed your body is over what happened with your son. Bad enough to have a child go to the hospital and be released, but when you are kept out of the loop and know other problems are going on… pile on the stress. Not feeling well tends affect the whole body as well. A change in your exercise routine also adds stress, even good changes. I’m amazed you’re not curled in bed with the covers pulled over your head. You had a really rough week. With everything going on, an easy run might have been a better choice. Doesn’t matter at this point, except live and learn. While you fight for you, which you are doing a great job doing, also treat yourself with love and kindness. What would you have told a friend who’d been through the wringer? I know, because you’ve done it for me. You’ve made so many fantastic changes. Beating yourself up because you had a down day doesn’t make any sense. (((Judith))) Do something nurturing for you.

    • Thank you for the reminder to be nicer to myself. I think writing this post out helped me recognize that I was trying to use my bad run as some sort of bludgeon to attack myself. Nasty bad habit, but it also can be distracting from the other stressful things happening that I feel helpless over, like my son.

      You are a bright ray in my day, and reading your kindness to me means so much.

  3. Stress can totally affect your run. (go back and read your post as if your best friend wrote it – what would you tell her?) You’ve had way too much stress in the last week it sounds like – body doesn’t distinguish physical (gonna get eaten by something) or other (holidays, blog, etc) stress, responds same way (like when you wake up heart pounding and sweating from a nightmare – body/brain thought it was real) and can only handle so much. And all signs point to you coming down w/ something (the being cold during run, the catch in your chest – go to the doc ASAP so it doesn’t get worse). You were underfueled from Sat & likely dehydrated and exhausted as well. And the mind gets tired out from dealing with things too, it was probably telling you you need a break. Cut yourself some slack and take extra good care of yourself. This, too, shall pass.

    • You’re so right — I’d be so much kinder to a friend than I am being to myself. Any of the this that happened his week could’ve negatively affected my workout, even if in a small way. The cumulative affect of the stresses put my body into some sort of shutdown, and I am very lucky I didn’t hurt myself. It was so incredibly hard to cut my workout short, but it was the right decision.

      Thank you for a clearer perspective than what I was allowing myself.

  4. Cut yourself some slack. The fact that you even attempted a 14-16 mile run after the previous day was hardcore. It sounds like you have had a very rough week which culminated in bad run. Your tempo run was awesome and I am sure your next run will be better. Take care of yourself!

  5. So wait – with all of that stuff happening it is your RUN you are trying to un-fuck? haha Natural way to think – since it is really all that is in our singular control … and maybe that is why I laugh. I get it.

    I’m sorry you had a really (REALLY) crappy week … the stress of what you have been going through with your son definitely weighs on me – a year ago it might have brought me to tears, this year he has been maturing … I hope it lasts. I still have no doubt that some of these things are in my future with him (and to a lesser extent the younger one).

    And everything else … just not easy. I have no doubt that stress can play into crappy runs – and sometimes I know when everything else is crappy we put too much emphasis on how much our runs are going to make it all better. Then we have a crappy run and think ‘oh great, now THIS sucks too!’

    • Yes, it’s definitely that the run feels within my control. My son, it’s just so… argh. He was a super easy kid, and we knew we had it ridiculously lucky. And then he hit junior year in high school and it’s been a rough 3.5 years. It’s hard to not be wondering where I went wrong and how I can try to help him.

      I truly hope your boys don’t go through this, at least not to this degree. The amount of un-doing my son will have to do in order to recover from his mistakes makes me hurt for him.

  6. Interesting true story… I called my sponsor one day, messed up because a guy at a meeting gave me unfair crap about what I said in a meeting. I was, as you can imagine, a little mad that he misunderstood me. My sponsor, in his fabulous day one-line form, simply said, “make sure and explain yourself better.” Thus why my posts are always more than 800 words. I never pegged you for a negative Nancy, if that’s any consolation.

    As for the stress, use stress to your benefit. Embrace the suckiness of it and use the run to beat it out of your body. I always use that mindset and it works great for me.

  7. Syd says:

    Judith, it sounds like you had a really stressful time. Sometimes not even those things that we love to do can erase away the stress. I hope that your son is okay. Sounds like some shenanigans from him which can only add to the stress. Take it easy on yourself.

  8. I went for a run when our dog died the other week. Like within an hour of feeling her last heartbeat. I did have to stop a couple times cause the emotions were too much. So running can’t conquer all. But it can also increase emotions – how many times have you seen people in tears during a race…

  9. TR says:

    Reading your post and your comments, I believe (and correct me if I’m off on any of this) I think you actually handled this in a healthy way. When crap happens, I think that ACoNs can dip into the natural default setting, like taking it out on ourselves. You caught yourself heading down that path. I don’t think I will ever get ‘rid’ of the natural default setting 100% when I have a lot of stress coming at me (physical ailments, etc.), I hope to only ‘catch’ myself and stop or correct that downward spiral. You did that very well, imo.

    I hope the ailment heals. xx

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