How to avoid unnecessary rage while training or use it to fuel your performance.
Most of the time, Chris Coon is a mild-mannered, low-key pastor at a church.
But when the collar comes off and the running shorts – and especially a race bib – go on, the 49-year-old turns into a different person. An angry one.
The things that stoke his ire? Poor race organisation. Course volunteers who don’t direct runners at turns. And cars, especially those that don’t yield the right of way or even acknowledge his presence in an intersection.
Not only does anger bubble up more frequently when he’s running, he says, he’s also more likely to act on it. “I’ve flipped the bird at many a driver over the years,” he says. “And if they flip me off then I’ll usually yell at them, ‘F you,’ or something like that.”
His reaction might shock any of his congregants within earshot – but it doesn’t surprise other runners or sports psychologists.
During training runs or competitions, or even during related activities like race registration or packet pick-up, many athletes and observers report a fast-rising fury out of proportion to any perceived slight. (For instance, a race shirt in the wrong size is one of the most common reasons participants yell at Kimberely Stedman, a race director.)
And – sometimes to their own surprise – they find themselves lashing out more than they would in any other situation. In effect, it’s a pedestrian version of the raised tempers that occur behind the wheel. Hence the term run rage.
There’s no real way to tell if it’s becoming more common. No agency keeps statistics on mid-run conflicts or race day complaints. But the term instantly resonates with both endurance athletes like Coon and sports psychologists like Gloria Petruzzelli, Psy.D., who works with athletes in private practice and at California State University. “It’s probably a lot more common than we think,” she says.
Why Runners Have Short Fuses
Even mental skills experts themselves aren’t immune from sudden ire. Take Denver-based Justin Ross, Psy.D. When he was training to qualify for the Boston Marathon, a woman walking her dog nearly tripped him on the retractable – but unrestricted – leash on a trail near his home. “I kind of unloaded on her verbally because I was frustrated,” he says. “It interrupted an important training run. My physiology was so kicked up that it was hard to restrain myself.”
What’s happening? Here are four forces at play in many cases of run rage.
• Biology deserves a fair share of the blame for these incidents, say Petruzzelli and Ross. When you’re pushing hard in a race or lost in thought on a long run, your conscious brain tunes out and your basic reptilian instincts take over. “If you’re running outside or on the trails, you’re vulnerable to traffic, animals, and then other people,” Petruzzelli says. “Even when we don’t realise it, our brains are scanning for threats.”
The first sight of one, no matter how slight, and you’re instantly even deeper into flight-or-fight mode.
In this state, your stress hormones are surging, your heart rate is soaring, your muscles are tense. Especially when you’re already amped up for a race or fast workout, it’s a quick jump from competition to fear, and again from fear to anger, Ross says.
This explains why athletes tend to react in risky ways. “I have been known to slap the hoods of the cars of inattentive drivers,” says Claire Zulkey. “I’m not proud of this – you never know who might be super cuckoo behind the wheel. But I find it vaguely satisfying to ‘speak my mind’. You know it’s jarring to hear something or someone hit your car when you’re in the driver’s seat.”
Wendy Curry found a driver who didn’t take kindly to that banging. “A few summers ago I smacked the back of a car that was pulling out of a surface lot in front of me and totally cut me off,” she says. “I run kind of fast, and I couldn’t stop in time. She yelled back at me. It got ugly. ‘B****, you BETTER not be hitting my car!’”
• A sense of entitlement is at work in many runners, Ross says. They feel an attachment to a physical space and the right to be there without interference. And, with your conscious brain quiet, you may regress to a childhood mindset, complete with the ensuing tantrum. “In our most primitive states, we’re like babies,” says Mitch Abrams, Psy.D., a sports psychologist and the author of Anger Management in Sport. “We’re very selfish. We take it personally when someone’s in our darn way.”
• Identity issues are also at work. When Abrams treats athletes for anger issues, he first asks one key question: on a scale of one to 100, how highly do they rank being an athlete as part of their identity? The closer to 100 they fall, the more strongly their athletic success is linked to their overall view of themselves, he says. As a result, they’re more likely to struggle when something goes awry.
“We spend a lot of time and energy and money to compete, and often with big ideas in mind,” Ross says. “People who are trying to run a Boston qualifier and there’s something wrong with the course, whether they’re misdirected or misguided, or somebody provides wrong information, that can just cause such great angst and anger.”
• The way news travels can now amplify the reach of any one small event. For example, race directors of a mismarked course can face an overwhelming assault once the news hits social media, Ross says. And in a nation highly divided politically and socially, minor insults can quickly turn explosive. “Any kind of feeling that promotes an us-versus-them could certainly lead to an escalation when it’s really unnecessary,” Abrams says.
But as Coon points out, run rage isn’t exactly a partisan issue. “For me it happens regardless of who’s in the administration,” he says.
How to Control Your Reaction
The downsides of this outrage range from physical harm (spoiler alert: the car is always going to win) to near-instant regret to poor performances. Runner Tom Huberty vividly recalls a time 25 years ago when, atop a hill near the 35th kilometre of a marathon, a car appeared on the closed course. Huberty yelled obscenities and threw a cup of ice at the driver, who was honking his horn to clear a path. “I am certain the cost was greater to me and robbed me of some energy the last few kilometres of the race,” he says. Still, the incident makes his blood boil years later.
How can you control your reaction to unexpected events?
• Use visualisation, Abrams recommends. Before your race or run, picture everything unfolding perfectly, including the end when you cross the finish line triumphantly. Then, imagine something going wrong – a slower pack of runners clogging the course, a dog lunging at you. Picture yourself reacting calmly, quickly steering yourself back on track, and finishing strong. You’ll lay the neural groundwork for responding the same way in real life.
• Stay tuned to cues you’re reacting with rage. Some of these can be physical – sweatier palms, a scrunched-up face, a faster heart rate, Petruzzelli says. Of course, these are also common to running, especially in a competitive situation, Abrams points out. So stay dialled in to your thought processes, too. Notice when your focus shifts from your race goals or pace to crushing your fist against a slower runner or a wayward pooch. Those are signs you need to intentionally redirect your response, Abrams says.
• Talk yourself down by recognising the threat you faced and then reassuring yourself, Petruzzelli suggests. Don’t gloss over it with purely positive self-talk. “Tell yourself, ‘Someone almost just ran you over or knocked you off the trail, but you’re OK. You’ll get through this; let’s move on,’” Petruzzelli says. Bring yourself to the present moment by practicing what she calls ‘radical acceptance’– recognising that you can’t change what happened, but you can still make the best of the situation by altering your response.
• Channel your anger into a better run, Abrams says. After all, anger – a completely normal and at times useful emotion – is separate from the outbursts that follow. “Anger can absolutely help performance in sport; rage never does. Rage is that level that is uncontrollable, it’s disorganised, it’s not focused,” he says. “Sure, if you’re neck and neck with someone and the ribbon’s right there waiting for you and you hit the gas, then rage can help you. But for any kind of distance, it’s going to destroy your plan.”
• Practise this focused use of emotion – just as you wouldn’t toss on a new pair of shoes or experiment with your breakfast on race day, you can’t expect to turn frustration into fuel the first time you try it. So test the idea of running mad by conjuring a past slight before a hard workout. “Think about someone who said you couldn’t – or even your own doubts,” Abrams says. In other words, use your run to talk back to the inner – or outer – voice that says you can’t achieve your goals. “Say, ‘Oh yeah? Well, watch me.’”
If you can do this without flying off the handle, the strategy can pay dividends. “Moderate levels of anger can make you stronger, faster, increase your stamina, decrease your perception of pain,” Abrams says. “If you can summon the anger and use it, then that puts more in your tank than a lot of other people.”
In part because of his training in psychology, Ross says he was able to do that with the errant dogwalker he encountered, even after expending energy yelling at her. “I was really cranked up,” he says. “I was at the end of long tempo run and I was able to finish with negative splits at the end.”
• Forgive yourself. Ross’s example shows that, even with practise and awareness, you may still react with rage after a conflict. If that happens, let yourself off the hook. Evaluating and modifying your behaviour is always part of the process of becoming a better athlete and a better person, Abrams says. Then do your best to forgive others, too. Vent to your running buddies if you need to, but also keep in mind the offending parties are humans and make mistakes, Petruzzelli says.
That’s a sentiment that helped marathoner and triathlete Peter Shankman change his approach. “I used to scream at people walking through a race,” he says. “Then one day, I realised I was being a complete tool – I realised it’s the endorphins of running that pushed me to scream, versus normal me who’d say excuse me and move myself.”
With conscious attention and deep breathing, he has moderated his response to avoid anger and rediscover the fun in racing. But, like most other runners, he’s still a work on progress. He holds one exception to his newfound compassion: “The a**hole who cut me off in the 2006 marathon then gave me the finger. I still hope he gets hit by a car one day.”