Pinning on your bib at the start of a race can feel a lot like sharpening your pencil before sitting down to take the SATs. It’s a routine—a familiar motion you perform to make a high stakes day more comfortable. However, the pre-race routine—laying out your racing kit, preparing a race-specific meal, attending packet pickup—can also provoke anxiety and trigger pre-race jitters.
Being a little nervous before a race is normal. Sometimes it’s even helpful and can give you an edge when the gun goes off. It shows you care about the race and indicates you took training seriously. But while nerves are fine, full-blown anxiety can dampen the enjoyment of racing and hinder performance. According to a 2014 study at the British Psychological Society’s annual conference, over-thinking or stressing about an event or competition beforehand can cause you to choke.
It’s difficult to separate acceptable pre-race nervousness from crippling anxiety and to learn how to use your nervousness to help your performance. These tips can help keep you in a positive, performance-friendly mindset before and during your event.
Control What You Can And Let go of What You Can’t
Typically, athletes are control freaks when it comes to training and racing. We follow the weather closely. We don’t take our eyes off the entrants’ list until the competition peels us away.
But racing is filled with uncontrollable unknowns. You can’t control your competitors’ pace or the weather. The only thing in your hands is physical and mental preparation coupled with race-day execution.
This process starts with a concrete race plan supported by your workouts and training. Your race plan can be broken down into small, executable parts based on predictable actions. For example, rather than thinking, “I want to run the last two miles in 15 minutes,” you can reframe your approach to “run the last mile as hard as I can.” The latter mindset gives you complete control over your ability to execute.
Still, it’s essential to remember that during a race, that things don’t always go as planned. When you push your body to the brink of its ability there are a lot of variables. In fact, in the last third of the race, your plan is likely to unravel. But being prepared at the start line will help you feel confident in the day and your ability.
Make Flexible Goals
For some runners, including myself, fear of failure is a huge source of nerves. Worrying that I’ll coming up short on race day has kept me up at night.
I still get nervous when it comes time to toe the line, but instead of having one, ultimate goal separating success and failure, I make an A, B and C goal. If A falls through the cracks, I know I have a solid B goal and then a C goal to hold on to.
My C goal is usually something achievable, like finishing at all costs or giving 100 percent all day. For example, my C goal at the Western States 100 was to have the best race I was capable of on that day and to reach the finish line no matter what.
Your B goal can be time or place oriented, like personal best or something else that was built on past events and you can build on in future events. Your A goal should be a little risky and hardly attainable. Something that, if, and only if, everything comes together, is in your reach. Using this goal setting helps ease the nerves and allows you to find success and positives from every race. If at the end of the day you’ve done everything possible to give yourself the opportunity succeed, then there’s not much more you can do, and you should be proud of the outcome regardless of the A and B goal.
Remember it Doesn’t Matter
Training, racing and everything in between can often be all-consuming, which can make race day feel like the pinnacle of our existence. While it’s okay to care about performance, it’s important to take a step back and realize it’s just running. Whether you’re a professional runner or a weekend warrior, race results matter far less than hanging with your kids, maintaining a healthy lifestyle and, most importantly, your happiness. If the pressure surrounding race day is overwhelming enough that it impacts your quality of life outside of the sport, take a step back. But if you toe the line remembering all of the more significant things in life, it will likely take the pressure off performance, give you something to run for when the going gets rough and make the experience more rewarding overall.