The mind is a powerful, damning thing: In one instance you can psych yourself up to pull off a sub 6-minute mile. Or you can psych yourself out, wrecking your performance the next.
In fact, this mental tectonic shift can be so colossally influential that it can even heighten an athlete’s odds of getting injured during competition, according to new research from Linköping University in Sweden.
Competitive athletes are permanently anxious over the possibility of becoming sick. A sniffle or some muscle stiffness to you can be catastrophically more worrisome for someone whose profession is their sport. “Elite athletes know their own bodies extremely well,” study author Toomas Timpka said in a press release. “If an athlete becomes anxious about injury or illness, this is a reliable indicator of the degree of seriousness… An athlete cannot lie to himself or herself.”
To reveal just how an athlete’s anxiety can influence performance competition, researchers questioned 300 athletes from 50 different countries. The men and women were asked to detail their health status one month before the International Association of Athletics Federations World Championships in Athletics 2015 began. Researchers discovered athletes who said they felt anxious about symptoms of illness before the competition were five times more likely to suffer an injury during competition.
Some more trends: Athletes whose symptoms gradually worsened before competition were three times more likely to be injured, compared to other athletes. And endurance athletes were 10 times more likely to risk injury or illness during the world championships than those competing in lower-stakes competitions.
One possible solution: “We recommend that the teams include a clinical psychologist, thus enabling the athletes to talk openly about their anxiety for illness or injury when preparing for competitions,” Timpka says. “It is important that the athletes do not conceal any injuries from their trainers or doctors.”
Interestingly, the more injury-prone athletes weren’t necessarily nervous about getting injured—just sick.
Why the correlation? The researchers hypothesize that overuse or over-exhaustion symptoms can occur so gradually that athletes don’t really perceive the change or threat. “The athlete has time to change the way in which he or she views the symptoms, and does not experience the same increase in anxiety,” Timpka explains. That means “anxiety-arousing signals do not have as strong an impact on athletes who have had problems for a long period. This makes it important to keep a close eye on such athletes.”
While the researchers don’t say exactly why paranoia is boosting your odds of getting hurt, there’s something to be said for staying entirely open with your doctor and trainer—even if you’re not an elite athlete. Say you’re running a 5K or competing in a lifting event—focus on keeping your training balanced (know the signs of exercise addiction), your nutrition on point (check out 20 foods an athlete wouldn’t eat), and work in mindful meditation (read through our athlete’s guide) to stay focused and mentally sound no matter what.