Training Anxiety: Risks and Strategies
Training is one of the best things you can do for your body and mind – but you could be sabotaging both.
The way you train, and the mental processes, are key to better performance and results. Today we’re going to take you through anxiety in training – what it means, why it’s a crucial factor you’re not thinking about, and how to improve harness it.
We’re going to take you through some of the risks of poor anxiety management, but also what you can do to improve it and harness it for the best performance and results!
- What is anxiety in training?
“true focus lies between rage and serenity” – Charles Xavier
Training anxiety refers to how mentally “hyped up” you are during training. It’s that level of giddiness you get and may even be a measure of how nervous you are – even if it’s a positive emotion.
When it comes to anxiety, nervous and excited are pretty much the same thing, just with a different level of positive or negative value. The underlying anxiety and stress are pretty much the same thing.
This is one of the key factors in reliably-good training. Being too anxious comes with risks to your technique and recovery, but having enough anxiety is a key factor to “switching on” for bigger lifts that require commitment and intensity.
As Professor X says, true focus doesn’t exist at the extremes of relaxation or intensity. It’s about managing and channelling anxiety in positive ways at a level that encourages maximum effort but doesn’t produce slip-ups or irrecoverable stress!
- Technical consistency: anxiety and repeatability
One of the things we see most often with over-anxious lifters is technical inconsistency. This is what happens when you get too hyped for a lift and mis-groove it. This is pretty common in powerlifting, for example, where excessive anxiety on a squat can lead to more hype than focus.
When this happens, the movement pattern that you’ve been training to execute is probably not going to be the one you end up moving through. It’s a loss of focus due to being too anxious that often produces poor movement.
We’ve all experienced this – it’s not who you are, it’s how you prepare. Olympic weightlifters rush their pull, powerlifters misgroove their movements, and elite jumpers mess up their steps. It’s a common aspect that everyone who trains has to prepare for and deal with.
The problem is that the best results come from training a movement and executing it when it matters – whether that’s in competition or when you gear up for a heavy deadlift in the gym. It doesn’t matter your goals, the best results come from preparation and execution in the same way.
The best results come from performing how you’ve trained, and the unpredictability of severe anxiety can ruin a whole training session – if not a whole program!
- The risks of over-anxious lifting
Building up technical consistency doesn’t mean you have to be a robot. There are some athletes out there with amazingly cool demeanours – like Ilya Ilyin or Mike Tuscherer. It just means you need to come in with the same level of focus every time – whatever intensity that is for you.
If you’re a quiet, collected lifter in training but you get super hyped in a test setting, it’s pretty likely you’re going to run into problems. If you can channel this to improve your performance, that’s awesome, but it needs to be three things:
If any of these are missing, you’re opening the door to technical change at a time when you really want to avoid it! This means more chances of missing lifts, more injury risk, and not showing the best of what you can do.
If you’re not making your anxiety work for you, then it’s sabotaging your performance!
- Allostasis: overhyping and the risk for psychological/cognitive fatigue
It’s not just your performance in the session that is damaged by excessive anxiety, but also your progress between training sessions.
One of the significant risks you’re putting yourself into by being over-anxious during training is a recovery risk. This is because the physical and psychological stressors you expose your body and mind to are not separate.
The idea that physical and psychological stresses add up is called allostasis – and the amount of anxiety you place onto yourself is a significant factor for recovery/progress. Psychological and nervous stresses are part of the recovery process, but too much can produce stress-dominance and reduce your progress.
If you’re finding yourself struggling to perform in repeated training sessions despite good food/sleep/recovery, this could be a factor. If you’re fatigued at a psychological and nervous level, you’re not going to perform at your best, so you need to manage this.
If you’re plateauing your training, have an honest think about how you approach it and how often you’re at maximal mental intensity. The more often, the more likely you’re going to stall in the psychological and nervous factors for performance!
- Final Thoughts: Managing YOUR Anxiety
Getting familiar with the reason why your anxiety is happening is a step to reducing the problem. It’s possible to manage anxiety, but it’s even better to reduce the source of the anxiety.
Dealing with your own training-anxiety and improving performance often means being brutally honest with what you’re worried about. Do you get nervous because it’s the first time you’ve dealt with that weight? Are you afraid of people seeing you fail? Do you just not believe in yourself?
Getting to the root of why you’re struggling – the imagined bad situations that drive excessive anxiety – and start thinking about why you feel that way. Improving these anxiety factors is an essential way of improving your technical consistency, psychological recovery, and overall performance.
We can’t tell you what the cause is, but you can and should look inside yourself to figure it out.
- The perfect mental state to regulate your own training
The important thing is to find where you perform best (probably through trial and error) and take note of how this feels and how you got there.
Life is going to make it difficult to just roll up in this mindset, but once you’ve identified it, you can start working towards it every session. If you know just how intense you need to be – and what mindset you’re best in – you can aim for it and adjust on the fly.
Most people will never give their mindset enough attention and, thus, never figure this out. It’s a way you can control your training and avoid those days where you feel great but perform terribly. Something as simple as what to aim for is the first step to better performance.
- Know yourself: are you overhyped or underhyped?
One of the most important ways that you can adjust your anxiety in training is to first be honest with yourself. Are you the kind of athlete to consistently overhype yourself and produce huge stress? Perhaps you’re the opposite and you’re never able to “switch on” for maximum effort performances?
These are just trends – we are all able to be either. The important part is looking at your training day and how your mentality is affecting your performance. On days when you’re tired from other things, it’s beneficial to get your pre-workout in and hype yourself up to make sure you’re putting in the effort.
However, on other days when you’re giddy and excited, it’s important to settle yourself down and pay attention to details. Being too hype can lead to more effort than precision, which can easily have a knock-on effect to your performance.
- Self-Talk and Self-Awareness
Sometimes, simply knowing your problem and attempting to deal with it in a session is the best strategy.
There are stories of the 1970s-80s Bulgarian Weightlifting teams treating their maximal effort squats with a calm, collected approach to improve their performance. These athletes would squat to heavy singles every day, using huge weights with amazing regularity.
Take your time to think about your training anxiety, and even attempt a session of heavier lifting that is entirely focused on being relaxed and on-task.
This was ascribed to training without huge psychological anxiety around these weights. Try this with weights in the 80-90% region and see how your body responds to a calm, low-anxiety approach. This habit could be one of the best ways to level out your mental approach during training.
Just be aware of what’s going on between your ears – that alone is one of the most important tools and a little self-awareness goes a long way.