How Stress Can Help and Hurt Running

For 17 years, running was Neil McDonagh’s life: His high school career led to a scholarship at Georgia Tech, where he hit times like a 4:04 mile. Postcollege, he earned up to $8,000 annually in prize money from road races, which complemented his job coaching cross-country at the University of West Florida.

The problem was he was almost always stressed, losing sleep weeks before a race, wondering if he was on the right training plan. Finally, in 2009, after training his hardest and still struggling to race well, he acknowledged to himself: This is not fun.

McDonagh took three months off. When he hit the road again, it was with no watch, no goal. And the strangest thing happened. He found himself happy, euphoric even. McDonagh kept running for pleasure, and after six months of feeling like a blissed-out mystic, he ran a half-marathon in Mobile, Alabama, without a watch or race strategy. The result? He set a two-minute PR and broke the course record with a time of 1:08:47, winning the race by more than nine minutes.

Many experts say not all stress is bad–it can sometimes boost performance. Yet McDonagh’s experience illustrates how running can thrive when it’s free of pressure and anxiety. The trick is to find a happy middle ground.

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