Easing race-day anxiety

Race-day nerves aren't all bad -- a little nervous energy can enhance your alertness and build your competitive edge.
You're at the start line -- palms sweating, pulse racing, stomach churning. You're in such a state -- untying and retying your shoes, jogging in place -- you're not sure you'll reach the first mile marker, much less the finish.

"Butterflies," multiple trips to the port-o-potty, even forgetfulness (Where did I put that packet of Gu?) are all classic signs of race-day anxiety. And if you experience any of these symptoms, rest assured you're not alone.

Everyone from Olympic athletes to weekend warriors experience hiccups in self-confidence, putting their performance at risk.

But race-day nerves in themselves aren't bad. It's a matter of degree. A little nervous energy can elevate your body's adrenaline level, enhance your alertness and build your competitive edge. Too much, though, can ruin your results.

So how do you stay in control? It comes down to mastering a few simple mental techniques, experts say.

Mind control

"When you worry with your mind, your whole body worries," explains JoAnn Dahlkoetter, Ph.D., Stanford University Medical Center sports psychologist and author of Your Performing Edge. Just as a fatigued or injured body impedes your mind's ability to focus -- if you've ever run with a blister, you understand -- a distracted mind prevents your body from relaxing and performing to its full potential.

So if you prepare only physically for a race -- and not mentally -- you're cutting your chances of peak performance.

"Athletes who consistently perform well have found ways to re-channel their negative thoughts, take charge of their emotions, and turn their nervous energy into a powerful source of inner strength and confidence," says Dahlkoetter, past winner of the San Francisco Marathon and second place Hawaii Ironman finisher.

So how do you establish that body/mind balance to keep your nerves in check when you step up to the start line? It's all in the preparation.

Visualize the best, and the worst

Positive visualization is one of the best-known, most powerful approaches to managing performance anxiety. Because the brain sends out similar signals during visualization as it does during a given activity, imagining yourself excelling in a race can help train your mind and body to behave as it would during the event itself.

For pro triathlete Lori Bowden, visualization is key in her race preparation. In addition to envisioning her ideal performance, she also anticipates potential problems and imagines how to handle them effectively.

"Things are going to happen beyond your control, and you can't always react the way you want. You have to be flexible enough to adapt to those situations, put them behind you and get back into the race as quickly as possible," explains the two-time Hawaii Ironman World Champion. "I try to set aside 20 minutes a day leading up to the race to focus on various aspects of it, the stronger parts and the weaker parts."

Envisioning how quickly you can fix a flat and get back on the road during the bike leg is as important as imagining yourself as the first one out of the transition area and into the run.

"The mistake most athletes make with visualization is not thinking ahead. They only visualize the perfect race or the perfect workout and that doesn't always happen," agrees Dahlkoetter. "You only have a few perfect races in your lifetime, and it's really important to visualize all possible scenarios and then have a plan for getting through each one successfully."

Watching a DVD of a top athlete in action, then picturing yourself in that person's shoes is another powerful preparation technique. And because you're likely to dream about whatever you see or think about just before you fall asleep, try watching it just before bed to give your mind and body the chance to reinforce the scenario during the night.

Talk yourself up

Just as visualizing successful competitive scenarios reinforces your ability to handle race-day pressure, simple affirmations or "power words" can do the same thing. They re-phrase negative thoughts in a constructive manner, helping transform them into positive energy. Start by writing down two or three of your most common race-day excuses or "what ifs," then revise each into a simple, affirmative statement that begins with "I am." For example:

If you think: I'm not ready for this race. I shouldn't be competing.
Repeat: I am well prepared for this race, and I am ready to do my best.

If you think: I'll probably crash my bike if I get in a pack.
Repeat: I am a confident, agile rider. I can ride well in any situation.

Along with repeating these mantras while you work out, try repeating them as you visualize the activity or situation in question, or write them on sticky notes and hang them around your house. Use these same affirmations during the race itself to help you stay engaged and focused, especially if you start second-guessing yourself or letting your mind wander.

"You're going to be distracted at times during a race, but that's your cue to take charge and turn things around," says Bowden.

"A lot of times, especially in longer races, there are moments when you really don't feel good, so I just start (repeating) 'I feel good, I feel good' and my brain and body start to feel better. If you dwell on not feeling good, you'll just start to feel worse: Whatever you tell your mind, your body tends to follow."

Have a plan

Considering the details of your event well ahead of time is also critical to alleviating race-day nerves. Planning in advance for as many aspects of the day as possible can help remove a lot of the "what if" factor, leaving you free to focus on enjoying the experience.

Bowden's planning often includes training on parts of the course whenever possible or studying course maps. She also makes sure to arrive in plenty of time to enjoy the atmosphere without getting lost in the hype. "It's OK to enjoy the excitement a little bit, but don't get caught up in it. Do a few things and then relax," she advises.

Baylor School girls cross-country coach and five-time Boston Marathon qualifier Heather Biebel agrees. "As a coach, I try to take everything out of the equation on race days that would make my runners more nervous," she says. "We have a set schedule of when we arrive at the race, when we warm up, stretch, and talk about the course. We keep everything very calm and in check, and we constantly remind (the girls) that some anxiety is a good thing."

Biebel also suggests using a checklist to keep track of critical equipment, maps and race information and remembering basics like getting plenty of rest during the week leading up to your event.

Set realistic goals

The difference between your performance expectations for a particular competition and your ability to achieve those expectations is often at the root of race-day anxiety, especially if those expectations aren't realistic. Instead of expecting to PR every time you set foot on the start line, for example, choose one or two more specific goals like reducing each split by a couple of seconds.

Setting smaller goals for each stage of a race can also help combat anxiety and keep you in the game, says Biebel, who often pairs a nervous runner with a more consistent teammate at the start of a race. "I usually give an anxious runner several goals to work on during her race, like staying with a certain competitor through mile one, another through mile two and then pushing past two or three more in the last mile or so," she explains. "We call it running with a master plan; it helps to battle mental issues, and it helps her stay focused on the competition."

Take notes

Dahlkoetter recommends using your training log to keep a record of your anxiety levels during the few weeks leading up to a race. Documenting your mindset each day, as well as any stress signals you're experiencing as race day approaches and during shorter training races you may have scheduled before the goal race, will help you assess times of optimum stress (days when pre-race jitters help your performance) and too much stress. You can also use this feedback to decide what mental strategies you need to employ to get things under control.


Emma Williams is a freelance writer specializing in health and nutrition and a mid-distance triathlete based in Chattanooga, Tenn.

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