Everybody gets a bit nervous before a race, right?
It makes sense, given that stress and pressure are a natural part of the training cycle as you approach race day. The underlying path for pre-race anxiety is completely normal, and, in many ways, a healthy response. Developing a plan for embracing the pre-race jitters and working with these experiences will ensure you show up to the start line ready to perform at your best. Don’t let improperly managed emotion, stress and anxiety in the days leading up to a race derail you from your well-executed training path and preparations.
There is no magic, cure-all to eliminate pre-race anxiety, although it may help to know you aren’t alone. Performance anxiety is a natural response for everyone participating in endurance events, from professionals and elites, to competitive age-groupers, weekend warriors and beginners. Pre-race anxiety is deeply connected to at least three psychological components:
1) Perceived judgment/evaluation of your performance
This applies both to your own standards and how you think you will be evaluated by friends, family, coaches and the world of social media. The greater the perceived judgment, the higher the likelihood of anxiety.
2) Connection to participating in a meaningful/important event
Meaning has the potential to grow exponentially given the weight you place on the race, whether you’re gunning for a Boston Qualifying marathon time, trying to set a PR, or if this is your only race of the season. The higher importance or meaning placed on a given event, the greater the felt sense of pressure.
3) Uncertainty about what may happen during the race
Uncertainty is typically broken down into two categories: internal factors (Did I do enough work during training? Will I be able to push hard the entirety of the race? Do I have what it takes to be successful?) and external factors (What will the weather be? How steep is that hill at mile 20?). The more uncertainty you connect to in each area, the higher the intensity of anxiety.
These three mental components become the cognitive triad for pre-race anxiety. The potential for experiencing heightened negative emotionality grows the more emphasis you place in each of these areas. The beautiful thing is that once identified, you can get to work addressing the cognitive or belief level factors on each level. Pre-race anxiety need not be feared, but rather embraced as a sign that you are preparing for action in a meaningful way.
Here are five tips to embrace pre-race jitters and turn them into a high performance based mindset:
Don’t try to relax
Many people may tell you to “calm down” or “relax” as your event draws near. Although well intended, this advice has a tendency to backfire. Anxiety is an arousal, preparation emotion. Anxiety signals the sympathetic nervous system in the body to prepare for some impending call to action or queues a requirement for some type of physical response. Excitement is an arousal emotion too, albeit without the negative connotations associated with “anxiety.” Research has shown that shifting the mind to perceive pre-race jitters to excitement rather than anxiety, shifts you away from a threat mindset to an opportunity mindset. An opportunity mindset puts you in the framework to showcase the work you’ve done in training to realize the goals you’ve established. Learning how to channel the natural rise of pre-race anxiety into excitement will help you have a positive impact on your performance.
Breathe and stand tall
Our posture plays a vital role in how we experience emotions. Standing tall, with shoulders back and head held high, provides a felt sense of confidence and communicates to our bodies a sense of focused preparation. Standing tall while breathing deeply and intentionally will help take the bite out of the intensity of any lingering, heightened emotions. It also communicates to our nervous system that there is no impending sense of danger or threat.
Make “I am” statements
Reframing anxiety as excitement in your mind is a great starting point. But we can do so much more in our self-talk to build a high-performance mindset. This starts by taking control of the “I am” statements you tell yourself. Anxiety has a tendency to shape your thoughts into fear based language usually starting with questions beginning with “What if…” followed by some type of catastrophe: “I fail; the weather sucks; I blow up at mile 12; my friends make fun of me.” You can influence each and every thought through executing positive, proactive, performance-based “I am” statements. Examples include, “I am excited for this race. I am prepared for the challenge ahead. I am confident I can execute the race plan regardless of conditions.” The more specific and genuine the “I am” statements are to you and your race, the better.
Be grateful and connect to something bigger than yourself
Research has demonstrated that gratitude can be an antidote to feelings of anxiety and has a profound impact on performance. In the days leading up to an event, take note of three things you are grateful for each night as you prepare for bed. Again, make them specific, genuine and connected to your race. Examples include: “I am grateful for staying healthy during this training cycle. I am grateful for seeing success on those harder training sessions. I am grateful for my family’s support to race this weekend.” Likewise, connecting to something bigger than yourself helps you shift perception away from any lingering anxiety you may be experiencing. This could be connecting to the energy of the running community that comes together for an event or taking a deliberate mental note that there are countless others who are not be in a position to participate in these types of events.
Put it all together with a meditation practice
Meditation plays a key role in performance, and “mindfulness” is a huge buzzword right now. Meditation helps you regulate emotion and intentionally shift focus, and is best done if part of a daily practice throughout your training cycle. Even if you are not a regular meditator, you can achieve similar benefits by following this same practice in the week or days before an event.