New studies show that the penalty for psyching up too much on the day of the big event can be severe: you may "choke."
Yet the other extreme can be just as debilitating. Research shows that going into a race too "cool" can dampen your performance.
The key is to find that special place in between: You want to be confident but not cocky; anxious and alert but not scared. Here's what some top-notch competitors and a sports psychologist say:
"Don't get undone by your adrenaline," says four-time Boston and New York Marathon winner Bill Rodgers. "I try to keep away from the crowds before a big race and just focus as much as possible on my game plan, which for me usually is not to go out too fast. Rehearse your race strategy in those final minutes, and stick to it."
"Put trust in your training," says former 2:09:58 marathoner and now coach Benji Durden. "I don't think there are any pre-race mental tricks that can save you if you haven't done your homework physically, so I just think about how well I'm going to do based on my training. It keeps me from getting too nervous."
"Keep things in perspective," says top American marathoner Kim Jones. "I tell myself before a big race that that's all it is a race, not a matter of life or death. Sure, I want to do my best, but I'm confident that I will because I know I've done all the right things to get ready. I just try to relax as much as possible in the final minutes and think positively. No negative thoughts allowed."
"Take comfort in your pre-race warmup," advises two-time Olympic marathoner Ed Eyestone. "Much pre-race anxiety for me comes from fear of the unknown how am I going to do, what's going to happen so I try to take as much solace as possible in the familiarity of my warmup. I do it very ritualistically, and it becomes like an old friend."
"Visualize your success," says Penn State University sports psychologist David Yukelson, Ph.D. "Spend those last few minutes breathing deeply and picturing yourself running smoothly, effortlessly, confidently. Confidence is key, because it helps relieve tension, which, next to lack of preparation, is a distance runner's greatest liability."