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Adrenaline High

Written by Christopher Bergland
Posted Jul 31, 2008

How you can learn to control that adrenaline rush and use it to your advantage on race day.

One of my favorite quotes does a great job of describing the ideal athlete’s high. Though not uttered by an endurance athlete, Charles Lindbergh captured the feeling every athlete should have at the end of a race at the end of his solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927:

 “Within the hour I’ll land, and strangely enough I’m in no hurry to have it pass. I haven’t the slightest desire to sleep. There’s not an ache in my body. The night is cool and safe. I want to sit quietly in this cockpit and let the realization of my completed flight sink in….I almost wish Paris were a few more hours away. It seems a shame to land with the night so clear and so much fuel in my tanks.”

The feeling of calmness mixed with drive without anxiety or fatigue. That feeling of bliss is what every athlete should strive for. Easier said than done, right? We owe those feelings to our body’s use of hormones, primarily adrenaline. It is an athlete’s ally and enemy. Too much, and you are over-aroused, jumpy and unable to perform; too little and you are lethargic, unfocused and too laidback to keep going. It’s important for athletes to understand how adrenaline works in our bodies and how we can learn to control our reactions to perform at our best and finish the race with fuel in our tanks, wishing there was more road ahead.


The two branches of your autonomic nervous system—sympathetic and parasympathetic—are constantly doing a balancing act: the sympathetic is amping you up, the parasympathetic calming you down. Adrenaline (or epinephrine as it is also called) is the hormone (along with stress hormone, norepinephrine) that is responsible for our fight or flight reactions to our environments. Adrenaline relaxes the airways so you can breath deeply to create a sense of calm. It also helps you perform aerobically (flight) and constricts blood vessels (for fight).

Together adrenaline and norepinephrine increase heart rate, trigger the release of glucose from energy stores, and increase blood flow to skeletal muscle. All the things you need to happen to have a great race. Learning how to create just the right amount of these hormones in your body and brain is the tricky part. The autonomic nervous system has its name because these reactions are, in a sense automatic. You don’t have to tell your brain “constrict blood vessels” for it to happen. You can, however, learn to control those reactions by paying attention to the physical and psychological clues that are linked to adrenaline. What causes you to become overexcited? How can you calm yourself down when adrenaline threatens to make you choke or drop the ball?

Finding Balance

When your blood starts pumping and the adrenaline begins to flow there will be an increase in: metabolism, the rate at which your body consumes oxygen, blood pressure, heart rate and volume of blood pumped to the muscles. Again, everything you need to both train and race. The athlete with just enough adrenaline is energized, pumped up—but calm. The goal is to avoid either extreme and learn to coax your body into the middle ground, balancing anxiety and calmness. Here are examples of what that feels like and how you can combat those feelings.

Too Much

The athlete with too much adrenaline is jumpy, performing with a scattered, nervous energy. He feels tense and rigid and his actions become unsure. The energy turns to anxiety, which becomes a source of distress. It’s safe to say that you compete in races to have fun, but this feeling is the opposite of fun.

Be aware of how you’re feeling. Start by taking note of the physiological cues such as a racing heart, shallow breathing, shaky hands, butterflies in your stomach.  Then take action. The remedy for too much adrenaline is triggering the Relaxation Response to make your body calm. Always focus on your breathing first. Take long, slow, deep breaths. Relax the muscles in your face, behind your eyes and move down from there relaxing the back of your neck, shoulders, elbows and hips. I like to walk around like a cat at the starting line of races—I make my arches really high and make all of my movements very precise and slow. Another trick is to use music that calms you. Everyone should have playlists of songs that take them away to a calmer place. Hum a tune that makes you feel good. Even a smell can help get you in the right head space. Associate good feelings with the scent of your sunscreen or lipbalm. Lastly, find a quiet place before a race and take a time out. Bring your favorite towel and set up a safety/calm zone away from the fray.

Not Enough

Generally this feeling is less common than the pre-race jitters, especially at a start line. But you may find yourself feeling lethargic or under-enthused mid-way through a race. Reversing the techniques from above, you can pump yourself back up.

If you feel sluggish, slow to respond or generally lethargic then you need to engage those hormones and get them flowing through your body to kickstart your engine. Put the cart before the horse by increasing your breathing and making it shallower. Have an espresso or Red Bull and crank up some AC/DC, Madonna or any anthem that makes you feel charged up. Move quickly—do some jumping jacks, wind sprints and think rapid thoughts, make your eyes dart around and try to take in as much of everything around you and channel the chaos of the environment. You can do this mid-race too—just force your body to kick it up a notch, go on a tiny windsprint and see if you don’t suddenly have more energy. Act and think like some one who is really pumped up and you will become pumped up. It’s mind over matter. If you cue the fight of flight response with your mind, the hormones will follow.

Why Training Matters

The idea of being a wire walker as an athlete is wrapped up in how you deal with good stress and bad stress. Your body will always reset its internal environment to maintain balance with itself and the outside world—it is very stable but it is also adaptable and can accommodate a heavy load of stress in order to get stronger. This is important for both your mental and physical training.

During a race or a training session, your body releases hormones and neurotransmitters that continue to give you energy and allow you to work hard and feel good. However, if your workout goes on longer than your body is conditioned for then these hormones become depleted, blood sugar levels drop, cells don’t get enough nutrients and you bonk. The more you train, the longer your body will be able to hold up under race conditions, but eventually, we all hit the wall. In my training I do the best I can to push through the resistance phase and just take a few steps across the threshold of exhaustion before throwing in the towel. It is good to bring yourself to that threshold everyday—that is how you condition your body to improve. If you are in an endurance race and you start to feel tired but still have a long way to go remember: you always have a second wind. Be patient. From years of racing I’ve learned that if you hang in there the cycle will begin again and if you are in an ultra event there will be a third, fourth and fifth wind, too.

Like all athletic and endurance skills, learning how to pump the perfect amount of adrenaline through your body is a skill you master over time. The key is to begin to pay attention to the signs, to get to know your own body, personal dispositions and how your respond to different situations. Then you have to learn how to respond to those cues by pulling in the opposite direction to find your own very unique middle way. 

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