Overcoming Stadephobia (Fear of Distance)

Stadephobia is not a real word. I just made it up. It combines the ancient Greek words stade, which was a unit of measure used in footraces (1 stade = 180 meters), and phobia, meaning fear, and it’s my name for the phenomenon of fear of distance. In general, phobias are irrational fears of things like spiders and open spaces, but in endurance sports many athletes experience a perfectly rational fear of longer race distances. The Ironman race distance, for example, can be quite intimidating for the athlete who has not yet mastered it.

How to overcome Stadephobia

As natural as such fears are, they shouldn’t be allowed to get out of hand. In excess, stadephobia sabotages athletes by tempting them to make poor training decisions out of an insecure need to prove to themselves that they can successfully complete the distance they’ve signed up for. It also causes athletes to start events in a state of high anxiety and low confidence that is intrinsically performance-hindering. So, how do you manage fear of distance? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Trust the process.

You are not the first athlete ever to attempt to complete whichever race distance you’re currently preparing for, whether it’s a marathon, an Ironman, or even a 100-mile ultramarathon. Keep this fact in mind throughout the training process. If you follow a training plan that is similar to those that athletes like you have used successfully in the past to successfully complete the same race distance, you have every reason to believe that it will do the same for you.

2. Don’t look up.

One of the big mistakes I see athletes make when they are training for a race distance that intimidates them is to base their assessments of their ability to complete the distance on race day on their current fitness. A triathlete training for an Ironman might, for example, struggle to complete a 75-mile bike  ride 12 weeks before the race and think, “There’s no way I can ride 112 miles and then run a marathon!”

Well, no shit. Even a professional Ironman racer cannot and should not expect to be ready to perform at peak level 12 weeks before an event. You aren’t supposed to be ready before it’s time to be ready! By looking too far ahead in the training process you will achieve nothing more than creating a lot of unnecessary anxiety.

Whether you’re a first-timer or a pro or anything in between, what matters is not where you are fitness-wise but which direction you’re going. How fit you are today is not important. What’s important is that you are getting fitter. So, instead of comparing yourself to the athlete you will need to be on race day to achieve your goal, compare yourself to the athlete you where when you started the training process. If you’re fitter now than you were, say, four weeks ago, then your training is working and you can expect to keep getting fitter in the weeks to come, so that when it’s actually time to be ready, you will be.

3. Accept uncertainty

At the root of stadephobia is anxiety about uncertainty. No race distance is inherently scary. Rather, a race distance is only scary to the degree that an athlete doubts his or her ability to complete it successfully. But some athletes are naturally more comfortable with uncertainty than others. Given two athletes training for a 100K ultramarathon, both of whom rate their chances of completing it successfully at 75 percent, one might be completely freaked out about those odds while the other is only mildly anxious.

If you tend toward being uncomfortable with uncertainty, work on it. Champions don’t mind risking failure. In fact, they deliberately set goals that carry a high risk of failure. The whole point of doing endurance sports is to challenge yourself, and you’re not challenging yourself if you know for sure you’re going to succeed. Obviously, you don’t want to take on tests that you know you’re going to fail, either. There’s a happy medium. But the point is to train your mind to be happy in that middle state, where it remains to be seen whether you’ll make it to the finish line until you actually do.