Top Ten Marathon Causes of Marathon Anxiety and Fear

By Rick Morris

For many distance runners the marathon is the source of many fears. In some cases those marathon fears can be so daunting that this great distance run is never attempted. Marathon anxiety and fear is an especially common problem for marathon newbie’s, but even highly experienced marathon runners nearly always have some fear and apprehension before a marathon. Marathon anxiety and fears don’t need to be a barrier to your marathon success. They can even help fuel your marathon success. Here is our list of the top ten causes of marathon anxiety and fear and how to overcome them.

Fear of Not Finishing

The fear of not finishing is a marathon anxiety shared by all distance runners, no matter what their experience level. The marathon is a difficult race and there is always the possibility of an injury, illness, overtraining or even external circumstances, such as the weather, preventing you from finishing. Don’t worry about fatigue stopping you. Fatigue can’t stop you. It may slow you down, but it can’t stop you. With sufficient mental training and a will to succeed, you can always make it to the finish line, even if you must walk. Injury, illness or external circumstances outside your control can stop you, but you shouldn’t fear them. Fear comes from within you, not from external circumstances. These thing happen to all runners at some time in their career, so know that you are not alone. If some unforeseen problem arises that prevents you from finishing you should hold your head high and know you did all you could. Stay strong and know you will finish next time.

Fear of Finishing Last

This is one of the most common fears among new marathon runners. Many new runners are a bit intimidated by faster runners and by the marathon distance in general. They feel that they will be ridiculed or look bad if they are one of the last finishers. As you become a more experienced runner you will find out that is completely untrue. All distance runners, especially the most experienced, know that running is about participating and growing both physically and spiritually. It is not about where you finish. In fact, during most races, the last finishers get the loudest applause. Don’t worry about where you finish. Just attempting a marathon places you among the elite few that have the guts and determination to even try such a feat. So be proud and happy, no matter where or how fast you finish.

Fear of Failure

A fear of failure is another universal marathon anxiety. Beginners may fear a failure to finish. Experienced marathon runners might fear a failure to meet a specific time goal. Competitive marathon runners may fear not winning or placing well in their age group. Fear is a very negative and destructive emotion. It can cause decreases in physical performance and mental strength. Fear of failure is a fear that is also fairly easy to overcome by setting different marathon goals. One should be a type of spiritual goal in which you are simply running for the joy of the event and the spiritual growth it gives you. You simply can’t fail at that one so there is no fear. The second is a mental goal of meeting an obtainable goal, such as finishing or finishing at a strong pace. This is a goal that develops some healthy nervousness but no real fear. Your final goal is a purely physical and very challenging goal such as a new PR or winning your age group. It is a goal to shoot for, but that you will not be overly disappointed that you don’t reach. No real fear exists because you are challenging yourself to reach a new level and you will be happy if you do, but you will be satisfied with the effort if you don’t. The key here is not to place all your eggs in one basket, so to speak. Don’t place all of your happiness on one hard to achieve goal. With these multiple types of goals, you don’t risk total failure, so the fear of failure does not exist.

Fear of Pain

Yep, pain is unavoidable in the marathon. There is just no way to avoid it. Even if you walk the entire distance at an easy pace you are going to feel highly fatigued and some level of pain. But do you need to fear the pain? No way! Some runners suggest embracing the pain. I understand the philosophy behind that, but I’m not sure I agree with it. Instead, I suggest understanding that some pain is unavoidable and let the pain flow through you. Don’t latch on to the pain, just acknowledge it and let it go. You should practice this during your long training runs. When the pain appears, recognize that it’s there but don’t dwell on it. Don’t look for where it came from or where it’s going. Just let it go. By practicing this during your long runs you will gain confidence in your ability to ignore the pain and the fear will go away.

Fear of Injury

No one wants to get hurt, so the fear of injury is an understandable one. The marathon is run at a moderate pace, so muscle pulls and strains are uncommon. More common marathon injuries are overuse injuries and heat or hydration related injuries. Overuse injuries  during your actual race should not be the cause of a fear if you trained properly. Have faith in your training and trust that the strength you build up during your training program and taper will prevent those types of injuries. Heat and hydration problems can be prevented by proper heat management and following proper hydration guidelines. So don’t fear the injuries, take steps during training and your race to prevent them.

Fear of Success

What? Fear of success! Is there such a thing? Oddly enough there is, and it’s more common that you may think. You may have heard of the marathon blues. It is a post marathon state of depression that is actually more common after meeting with great marathon success. There are a couple of causes of the marathon blues. The first and the one most closely related to fear of success, is the let down of meeting your marathon goal. So much of the physical and mental efforts of your recent past have been dedicated to meeting your marathon goal, now that you have successfully met that goal, you feel a bit of a letdown. You don’t know where to go from here. You feel lost and without a running purpose. The second reason is related to the physical and mental stress of your training and the race. You body and mind are going on strike. They are telling you that you need some rest and recovery. You don’t need to fear the marathon blues because they are easy to cure. After your race take a few weeks to physically and mentally recover. At the same time begin planning your next running success. The blues will be gone and you will be on your way to new challenges.

Fear of Time Commitment

Many new marathon runners are afraid of the perceived time commitment involved in marathon training. They fear the time away from friends, family and work. This is really a nonexistent fear. Marathon training will not take a lot of time away from your other responsibilities. Sure, you could dedicate yourself completely to a marathon training plan and spend many hours per day training, but you don’t need to. You can complete a marathon training plan using your normal weekly training routine with the exception of that one day per week for a long run. Even the long run day is not that time consuming. Only during the final 6 to 8 weeks, when your long run reaches the 15 to 23 mile range will the long run time commitment become considerable. So don’t worry about time, it’s really not an issue.

Fear of the Distance

Beginning marathon runners may also develop a fear of the distance. 26.2 miles seems like a very long distance at first glance. But, if you break it down, it does not seem that bad. Think of it in terms of a distance you are probably already familiar with. A marathon is basically a little over eight 5K’s or four 10K’s. When you think of it that way, it still sounds long, but not so long you need to fear the distance. As you progress through your marathon training and progressively increase the distance of your long run you will begin to lose that fear of the distance. In the early stages of your training, just don’t think about the entire distance, just focus on the next 5K.

Fear of the Unknown

A very common marathon anxiety is the fear of your first marathon. A first marathon presents a lot of unknowns. The distance is new. The types of fatigue and pain you may feel are unknown. The mental challenges are unknown. Or are they? Remember that you are going to be training for your marathon, or at least I hope you are. Your progressive marathon training plan is going to make you familiar with each of these unknowns. You will learn what 20+ mile runs are like. You are going to feel, first hand, the fatigue and pain of progressively longer distances. You mind and spirit are going to react to, and grow from, the challenges of progressively longer and more difficult training runs. While you may not know what the entire26.2 miles will present, you won’t be going into your race completely in the dark. The unknown phases of the marathon that remain should not present a fear. Think of them with excitement, not fear. Embrace them as a new and unknown challenge, not something to be afraid of. So, don’t fear the unknown, look forward to meeting it.

Fear of the Marathon Wall

Of all the marathon fears, the fear of the marathon wall is probably the most common. I think I can help you avoid this fear quite easily. The marathon wall does not exist, at least not in the form that you may envision. There is no barrier that drops down in front of you at mile 20. The marathon wall is a really just a generic term that describes the effects of running out of fuel in your body. As your body become more and more carbohydrate depleted your central nervous system begins to try to slow you down or stop you to protect your muscles and keep your system in balance. It does this by decreasing signals that tell your muscles to contract and by sending pain signals. As a result you feel pain, fatigue and weaker muscles. The more carbohydrate depleted you become the more severe the pain, fatigue and weakness. The fatigue reaches a peak when you are almost complete out of carbohydrate stores. That is the point that many runners refer to as the marathon wall and it just happens to usually occur are right around the 20 to 23 mile point in the marathon, due to limits in your body’s ability to store carbohydrates. Just knowing what the wall is can help alleviate your fear of the marathon wall. You can cure your fear of the wall even more by learning proper pacing and improving your running mechanics/economy, both of which will decrease the rate at which you use up your carbs. You should also train your mind to more efficiently deal with the effects of decreasing carbohydrate stores through consistent and progressive long run training.