You've spent your training runs loping along tree-lined trails or quiet back roads with your herd. But one day, you find yourself on a city street inside an immense crowd of unfamiliar beasts. Music blares, crowds roar, and you have to fight your way through a veritable obstacle course to reach your destination.
Add the pressure to perform and months (if not years) of preparation and expectation, and you have the perfect description of a big-city race—and a potential recipe for a major mental meltdown. The unfamiliar sights, sounds, and emotions can trigger your body's fight-or-flight stress response, says mental skills coach Carrie Cheadle, M.A., author of On Top of Your Game. Your heart races, your breath quickens, and your muscles tense, all of which perks you up in the moment but wears you down as time passes. "There's a real physiological impact to getting stressed out, and you don't want to burn your matches on that," she says. "You want that energy to go toward your race."
You can't quiet the crowds. Nor would you want to—after all, you've been anticipating this since long before you clicked "submit" on your registration form. Fortunately, Cheadle says, you can change the way your mind and body react. Whether the gun goes off in months or minutes, we have the mental tools you need to have the best possible race experience. (Pay extra attention if you noticed your palms sweating and your heart thumping just reading about race day—you may have extra sensitivity to its stress-inducing effects, Cheadle notes.)
During training: Make it old hat.
Race jitters may not set in until closer to the event, but you can start preventing them weeks or even months ahead of time by logging some miles in situations that simulate what you'll experience during the event. "Mimic any of the conditions you can—the idea is to minimize the novelty on race day," says University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock, Ph.D., author of Choke and How the Body Knows Its Mind. When the same scenario pops up on race day, your brain files it under "been there, done that," instead of "time to freak out."
Live in a rural area? Head to a city for a couple of long runs. Dead silence on your regular route? Make a booming playlist for your workouts (just make sure you don't tune out traffic around you), says Jeff Brown, Psy.D., a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School and author of The Winner's Brain. Run a shorter tune-up race or two if possible, and ask your cheering squad to show up on the sidelines. "It's great to succeed in front of your family and friends; it's horrible to have a suboptimal performance," Beilock says. "You want to be sure you're used to the effects of having them there watching."
Days and weeks beforehand: Plan every detail.
"When we don't know what's going to happen, that's when we get nervous," says Jeff Gaudette, head coach at RunnersConnect in Boston. A race strategy—complete with details like clothing, pacing, and fueling—alleviates anxiety, but don't stop there. Whether you have two weeks left or just a few days, creating a detailed agenda fosters feelings of confidence. Nail down details like how you'll get to and from the airport and the race, where you'll eat, and what time you'll wake up. If anxiety arises as the date nears, simply refer back to the plan and remember you've thought it all through.
Take it a step further by creating a pre-performance plan for your mental state, Cheadle says. Envision how you want to feel before and during the race (calm? prepared? energized?) and identify the strategies that can help you achieve that goal, such as listening to calm music or having a pep talk with your running partners. Use imagery to picture the race going well but also to visualize encountering obstacles—say, a loose shoelace or an unplanned potty break, Gaudette says. Imagining yourself reacting calmly in a crisis lays the neural groundwork for adapting to whatever comes up in real life.