It is 07:00 o clock on a Saturday morning. You scramble around at the starting area of your race, and you feel sick to your stomach.
Doubts fill your mind: “Gosh, I am such an idiot. I shouldn’t be here. Look at these athletes. They look so much fitter and stronger than me. What if I come in last? What if I don’t even finish? Why do I want to make a fool of myself?”
You think about quitting before you even start.
Pre-race anxiety is a common problem for athletes. And while feeling a little nervous before an event can give you an extra boost on race day, too much anxiety leading up to the race can have detrimental effects on your performance.
Being overly anxious increases your heart rate, tenses up your muscles, and leads to shallow breathing.
None of which is particularly conducive to a good race day performance.
If you want to get a hold of your pre-race nerves and turn performance-crushing anxiety into performance-enhancing pre-race jitters, read on. In this article, you will discover seven strategies designed to calm you down before your big event.
But before you dive into the strategies, let’s first distinguish between pre-race jitters and performance anxiety.
What Is The Difference Between Pre-Race Jitters And Pre-Race Anxiety?
If you are unsure if you are experiencing performance-crushing pre-race anxiety or excitement consider these characteristics of each:
1. Pre-race jitters:
- you feel eager to get started
- you think clearly and feel ready to go
- you feel alert and optimistic that you can tackle the challenge ahead
2. Pre-race anxiety
- you feel scared and mentally drained
- you have racing thoughts and are unable to focus
- you are exhausted, experience stomach sickness, and are afraid of the challenge ahead
If you experience more symptoms of pre-race anxiety than pre-race jitters, try out the strategies below to take your racing week from one of anxiety and dread to one of excitement and fun.
- Welcome feelings of anxiety and re-frame them
- Journal about your fears
- Create pre-race rituals
- Have a race plan
- Visualize the race
- Employ relaxation strategies
- Focus On What You Can Control
1. Welcome Feelings Of Anxiety And Re-Frame Them
The first step in overcoming pre-race anxiety is to acknowledge the feelings and welcome them. By trying to ignore them or wishing you wouldn’t have them, you are digging yourself an even deeper stress hole.
Be mindful and acknowledge your feelings. Accept that you are nervous and know that there is nothing wrong with having these feelings.
Once you accept them, you can re-frame them.
I will tell you a secret: your body doesn’t know labels. Those feelings of butterflies in your stomach and those cold hands are physical symptoms. The stories you tell yourself about what those symptoms mean are making you anxious.
What does that mean for you?
Start to view your feelings as something positive. Label them as excitement.
Instead of telling yourself, “I am feeling so anxious. I am afraid I will screw up,” tell yourself, “I am feeling so excited. My body is getting ready to race”.
It may seem silly at first or as if you are deceiving yourself but trust me, it works. Over time and with other strategies outlined below, you will begin to see these pre-race feelings as something positive. Something that gets you ready and sets you up for a focused and successful performance on race day.
2. Journal About Your Fears
A journal is a valuable tool for developing awareness of your thoughts, feelings, and the stories you tell yourself. Usually, pre-race anxiety develops when you feel underprepared, are afraid of the unknown, or put too much pressure on yourself.
To find out what is behind your anxiety or fears, take a notebook or your training log and write out all your fears about the race. Then decide if the fear is valid because it is a potential problem you can encounter during the race or if it is an irrational fear.
For example, you might note down the following worries:
- you didn’t train well enough for the race
- you will miss trail markers and get lost
- you will let your family and friends down when your performance is not as expected
Let’s look at how you would deal with each fear.
If you are afraid you didn’t train enough for the race, this is a problem you can not solve anymore now. It is too late. So you can just as well stop worrying about it.
Some fears are just plain irrational – like the fear of letting your family and friends down. Even if you don’t finish the race, the people who love you will love you, regardless. And if not, well, then maybe it’s time to re-evaluate your relationship with them.
For the potential problems you may encounter on race day, you should try to find possible solutions to each and ask yourself what could be the worst if that could happen?
For example, if you are afraid of getting lost on the trail, what could you do to avoid this? You could load the GPS route on your phone. You could make double sure at each crossing that you take the right path, even if that would mean you’d need to slow down. You could decide to always run with others.
What could be the worst case? You get lost. What would you do then? Would you try to get back on course? Would you call race officials? Would you contact your partner who traveled with you?
Detail every scenario in writing, and your fears will diminish. You will feel prepared for times when things will go wrong.
3. Create Pre-Race Rituals
Many top-performers across various disciplines perform rituals to prepare for an event. If you don’t already perform a certain pre-race routine, I encourage you to create one.
The performance-enhancing impacts of rituals are not only theoretical. Scientific research also showed that rituals before an anxiety-inducing situation can improve performance.
By having a go-to-ritual that you perform before each event, you give your body and mind structure, familiarity, and a feeling of security.
You are shifting your thoughts from negative to positive. You relax. You minimize errors.
What are examples of pre-race rituals? Laying out your clothes the night before the event. Watching the same movie or your favorite Netflix show. Eating the same pre-race dinner. On the morning of the event, some athletes like to have a quick yoga session. Others have the same breakfast before every race.
I prefer to have a coffee, journal, and go through my race day plan. This brings me to my next point.
4. Have A Race Day Plan
Of course, no race ever goes according to plan. However, by having mentally rehearsed how you will execute the race you reduce the mental load on race day. After all, you already answered some important questions such as when you will eat, what to consume at each aid station, when you will walk.
Review the racecourse beforehand and plan how to approach the difficult points. If you can train on the racecourse then do it. While this is the ideal scenario, it is rarely possible. An alternative is to study maps and read race reports. Try to familiarize yourself with the race as much as possible and know what to expect.
When creating your plan, also think about potential issues and how to deal with them. Preparing for the worst but expecting the best will serve you well on race day.
5. Visualize The Race
If you want to be successful in endurance events, then your mental preparation matters just as much as your physical preparation.
By creating mental images and picturing yourself doing something hard and succeeding at it, you’ll calm your nerves and gain confidence. With every visualization, you are conditioning your subconscious. On race day it will feel as if you are merely repeating what you already achieved in your mind’s eye.
If the thought of sitting down with your eyes closed and playing a movie in your head makes you want to roll your eyes – then try on-the-run visualizations.
For example, during a challenging hill workout, you can pretend you are in the final miles of a mountain ultra, on the heels of the lead competitor. At the end of a long run, imagine you are in the final stretch of a race and cross the finish line with a smile, content with your performance.
Whatever technique you choose, try to make the imagery as lively as possible.
Imagine the sounds during the race. Will you be running through remote areas or is it a big race with thousands of spectators cheering? What will you wear? Can you feel the wind on your skin? Also, visualize the bad moments and see yourself working through them successfully.
6. Use Relaxation Strategies
Relaxation strategies are an important tool in your toolbox to manage stress. Many athletes get increasingly nervous the last 2 weeks before the race. Instead of fretting over past training or catching up on projects you neglected during times of peak training, use that time of reduced running for extended self-care.
Get a massage scheduled. Do yoga. Enjoy time in a hot bath or hot tub. Meditate more. Sleep in. Do breathing exercises.
Do everything in your power to reduce lifestyle stress as much as possible during your last 2 weeks before the race.
Remember that lifestyle stress is still stress and affects your body too.
7. Focus On What You Can Control
The stoic philosopher Epictetus advises us:
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own…”
Too many athletes get hung up on circumstances on race day they have no control over. The weather. Who else is competing. Their training leading up to the race.
Realize that none of this matters. When the gun goes off you can not control any of this.
Instead of wasting valuable energy fretting over rain or how you wish you’d trained differently channel your energy towards the only thing you can control in this very moment: the effort you put into the race in this very moment.
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- to improve your race performances
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