For most people, a fitness routine serves as a source of stress relief. But can your workout ever make you angry, rather than helping you blow off steam?
If the athletes and experts I talked to for this Runner’s World article are any indication, the answer is a resounding yes.
In it, I explore a phenomenon we called “run rage” – the fury that arises when a car cuts you off, a too-long leash trips you up, a walker veers into your race path.
People who are normally calm and collected suddenly find themselves reacting in ways they wouldn’t dare in normal life. They yell, they bang on bumpers, they flip the bird. Sometimes they almost immediately regret it. In other cases, they feel a simmering anger that lingers for years (or decades).
The reasons have to do with both psychology and biology, the psychologists I consulted told me.
Here’s the biology part: Life’s daily stresses activate our primitive flight-or-fight system. One of the reasons exercise works so well as an antidote is that it allows us to release this built-up tension in a way that’s productive. But when someone interrupts your flight path, you’re primed to fight.
Psychologically speaking, such incidents touch on our feelings of entitlement and a sense of power imbalance (feelings heightened in today’s political climate). We feel we have a right to be in our space and do our thing, and when someone else gets in our way, we get upset.
I’ll admit it – I’ve definitely felt this before, and may have even slapped a car or given the stare of death to a clueless dog owner. And though there are some aspects of running that make it uniquely poised to elicit this reaction – it’s something you do outside, in public, with lots of other people – I’ve also felt moments like this when classmates dare to chatter in the yoga studio, grunt aggressively loudly in the weight room or completely disrespect my space in a group fitness class.
While it’s perfectly normal and understandable to feel this way sometimes, that doesn’t mean you should always give in to your impulses or let these feelings fester. There are real and obvious dangers to picking fights with strangers – and even if you merely seethe instead of act, you’re going to suffer far more than the person who supposedly wronged you.
To defuse this rage, you have to spot it early. You can watch for physical signs like sweaty palms and a furrowed brow—but since those are sometimes byproducts of hard effort, you might also have to focus on your thought processes. When they shift from your own downward dog to external factors like the adjacent guy dripping sweat on your mat, you know it’s time to shut it down.
It’s OK to recognize that what’s happening is annoying (and even potentially dangerous, in the case of rogue cars and wayward dogs). But once you’re sure the situation is safe, reassure yourself you’re OK, and give the other person the benefit of the doubt. We’ve all been the one not paying attention and doing something that comes across as rude or selfish. Assume it was an accident, then let it go and get back to the sweaty task at hand.
And if you want to take it a step further, consider this: Refocused, your anger could turn into fuel. Instead of dwelling on why you’re in the right, use that bubbling frustration to motivate you. Think of that guy who never re-racks the weights as daring you to lift heavier, that runner who always passes you just a little too closely as inviting you to a race. If you step up to the challenge, you never know what you might be able to accomplish. And victory – well, that’s a pretty darned good stress reliever.
Have you ever gotten angry at someone mid-run or mid-workout—and did you do something that surprised even you? How did you cope or recover? Let us know in the comments!