Although Stanford University senior Grant Fisher had competed in races against professional runners in the past, the New York Road Runners Millrose Games earlier this month was special.

As the 21-year-old prepared to run the elite 3,000 meters at the prestigious indoor track meet, he expected it to be a tough race.

“This one was a pretty high-caliber field across the board,” says the nine-time NCAA Division I All-American. “Everyone was talented and accomplished.” One would think a young runner like Fisher might feel tremendous pressure to show he could hang with the elites. On the contrary, Fisher was excited by the challenge and knew he could win.

That’s exactly what he did, beating collegiate rival Morgan McDonald of Wisconsin in a spectacular finish. It was a repeat of the NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships last fall, but with a more fulfilling ending for Fisher. In that race, Fisher narrowly lost the national title to McDonald. “He always makes it exciting at the end,” Fisher says. “Morgan is a great competitor and a great guy and always brings out the best in me.”

Bottle Nervous Energy

Channeling performance pressure into the actual race like Fisher—and not allowing it to zap your energy in the days before—is a key skill in successful racers. Ben Rosario, head coach of Northern Arizona Elite, a professional running team in Flagstaff, Ariz. says feeling nervous shows athletes care about their performance, so the goal is not to eliminate it.

“I always remind (runners) that in order to use that nervousness to your advantage, you have to bottle it up until race day,” says Rosario, who coaches the country’s top distance runners, including Kellyn Taylor, a 2:24 marathoner. “Wasting it beforehand by worrying and over-thinking things means you’ll have that much less adrenaline when you need it most.”

Middle-distance star Kate Grace, who also competed at Millrose, says the butterflies in her stomach start a week or so before a big race. To ease the tension, she will enjoy time with friends. On her runs, she will picture how the race might unfold.

As the event approaches, Grace, a 2016 track Olympian and a member of the Nike Bowerman Track Club, packs her gear well ahead of time and makes a checklist. “I like to be calm and relaxed as possible on the day of the race,” says Grace, 30.

Fisher says he avoids reading commentary and race predictions online leading up to a big competition, and he likes to spend some time alone to think about his race strategy. Those of us without press coverage of our races can avoid similar pressures by limiting interactions with well-meaning friends and family asking, “Are you ready?” or “What time do you think you can run?”

Assess Honestly, and Move On

Despite all the mental and physical preparation, some races just don’t work out the way a runner had planned. Even though Grace finished third in the Wanamaker Mile and ran faster (4:24.27) than she did in last year’s race, she wasn’t thrilled with her performance. “I didn’t have a kick in the final lap,” she says. “I wish I had been more competitive in that final part.”

But she also realizes what she did well: she positioned herself well early in the race and didn’t let the leaders build a big gap.

Photo: NYRR Millrose Games/The Armory

Rosario, the elite running coach, says it’s important to acknowledge if the runner—or himself—made a mistake in strategy that led to the poor performance. However, sometimes runners truly give a race all they have and still miss their mark.

“If you did everything you could possibly do, and you still ended up short of some time or place goal you had set for yourself, then you know that it was the goal that was the problem, not you,” Rosario says.

Evaluating what went right and wrong is important, but don’t dwell on it too long. “Apply those lessons to your training, and then keep moving forward,” Grace says. “There are more races to be run.”

Runners should also make sure they aren’t being too hard on themselves following a poor performance. Early in his college career, Fisher says his confidence as a runner was dependent on his race performances and workouts. But if he had a bad race or shaky workout, he would be easily rattled. He has since learned to see the bigger picture and draw mental strength from his inner determination and belief in his ability. “It’s knowing who I am and deriving confidence from me and not from what I’ve done,” he says.