That feeling you have before a race? Nearly everybody gets it. Pre-race anxiety is "understandable and normal," says sports psychology consultant Riley Nickols of Mind Body Endurance.
Fortunately, you can learn to calm down, manage it, and even use your pre-race anxiety to gain an edge. Here's how:
Let Your Heart Beat
Your heart rate will likely be higher than usual when you're at the starting line, and you'll have other symptoms of anxiety. Accept it, don't fight it. Stop thinking of pre-race anxiety as a sign you're freaked out and look at it as a sign that you're primed for a great performance, Nickols says. "The interpretation of anxiety is within your control," he says.
Make a Plan
The week before the race, sit down and decide how you're going to be successful in that race. Go beyond pacing and nutrition and think through how you'll manage the different aspects of the event. If you're doing a triathlon, for instance, your race plan might begin by thinking: "I'm calm and focused and enjoy moving through the water smoothly."
But don't stop there. Map out your plan for managing obstacles, too. If you get a flat on the bike, visualize yourself calmly pulling over and changing it like you've done so many times before. And remind yourself that there's a bonus: You get to set out again on refreshed legs.
Decide How You Want to Be on Race Day
"I ask myself how I can describe the best possible 'me' needed to achieve my goal," says certified professional coach Peter Kieran, founder of Your Road, Your Way. "I settle on two to three words to describe how I will be on race day. I also create an image that will anchor these values and/or strengths."
In one case, the words were "'calm' to breathe and calm my inner negative voice, 'confident' to remind me to trust my ability, and 'playful' to consider the race as a gift for all the hard work and training that I did."
"My anchor was an image of myself as a boy running and riding my bicycle with my head up high, laughing and enjoying the moment," Kieran says. "I use these images and words in the days and weeks leading up to the event and in the two to three minutes before the gun goes off. It also helps me regain focus during the race."
Trust Your Training
Remember all those days you ran in the rain, biked on tired legs, or swam 200 extra yards just in case you counted wrong? You've met the challenges; now reap the rewards.
"Reminding yourself of all the energy and effort you've put into training can be hard to do in the moment," Nickols says. So he has his athletes make rubber band balls.
"They add a rubber band for every workout they've completed leading up to a race," he says. "In six months, they may have hundreds of workouts. I recommend that athletes take these with them to the race. When they get anxious, it's a concrete reminder of the preparation they've done."