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Four Strategies For Overcoming Pre-Race Nerves

Utilize your nervousness to galvanize your performances.

Utilize your nervousness to galvanize your performances.

Athletes who don’t get nervous prior to competition are rare and special, but that doesn’t mean pre-race nerves are a bad thing.

Being a little nervous before a race means you care about your performance and have put in a lot of hard training to prepare. There is a fine line, however, between normal nervousness and letting anxiety get the best of you. The latter can put a damper on the enjoyment of racing and significantly hinder your performance.

Case in point: In the spring of 2007 I qualified for my first national track championship at 10,000 meters. At the time, just qualifying to race was an awesome opportunity, but the actual thought of lining up on the track against the best 10K runners in the country was utterly nerve-wracking.

My training had been going well and I knew I was fit, but as I sat in my hotel room the night before the race and looked at the entry list, all the confidence I had in my training and fitness began to wane. I started getting really nervous. I scrolled down the list and analyzed the well-known runners I would be competing against the next day: Galen Rupp, Meb Keflezighi, Abdi Abdirahman, Dathan Ritzenhein, Ryan Hall.

“Holy cow,” I thought to myself. “These guys are Olympians and I am going to get my butt handed to me. Not only that, but all those fans in the stands and message board posters are going to laugh at me for even being on the start line with these guys.”

I was so nervous that I barely slept the night before. At lunch on race day I could barely eat. While I was warming up, the crowd roared as the race before mine finished in an exciting kick. I got a shot of adrenaline so fierce I nearly threw up, and by the time I toed the starting line, nerves had completely taken over and I was a shell of the runner my workouts leading up to the race had demonstrated. I finished in second-to-last place in the slowest 10K time of my career.

RELATED: Putting Pre-Race Nerves To Work

How do you separate normal pre-race nervousness from crippling anxiety? More importantly, how can you utilize your nervousness to galvanize your performance rather than paralyze your abilities?

Taryn Sheehan, assistant cross country coach at the University of Louisville and an expert on handling race preparation, believes it all comes down to being prepared. “As runners we often worry and focus so much on the physical components of training, but do very little on the mental and emotional preparation. Running is the simplest sport there is but is often complicated by the intangible.”

Over the following pages we’ll outline four strategies Sheehan uses with her athletes that can help you overcome paralyzing pre-race nervousness.

1. Control What You Can Control

Focus on the things you can control and don’t worry about the things you can’t. You can’t control how others will react to your performance. You can’t control the weather on race day, or if the plane getting you into town the day before the race gets delayed. You can’t control if your top competitor has a great race or totally bombs. Also, to an extent, you can’t even control the actual outcome of your race. You can, however, control your own physical and mental preparation and race-day execution.

This process starts with a concrete race plan supported by your workouts and training. Your race plan should explicitly break down each section of the race into small, executable parts that are based on predictable actions. For example, rather than thinking, “I want to run the last mile in eight minutes,” you can reframe your thought process so your plan is to “run the last mile as hard as I can.” In the latter scenario, you have complete control over your ability to execute.

Likewise, to take your mind off the various unpredictable elements in the final hours before the race, focus on a specific, actionable warmup plan. Repeat the same steps in your warmup that you’ve done countless times during training. As you work through the warmup process, think back to your great workouts and take comfort in the familiarity of the warmup process.

2. Use Mantras And Positive Self-Talk

“Often, I teach my athletes to use mantras” says Sheehan. “The goal is to encourage positive self talk to either subside nerves and refocus to more confident thoughts.”

Use a mantra that you can easily remember. I like ones that rhyme, such as “fast as a fox, strong as an ox.” More importantly, ensure that all words in your mantra are positive. “Pain is temporary” or “hurt is good” are not effective mantras as your mind subconsciously holds on to the negative words, pain and hurt.

Write your mantra on a note card and carry it around with you. You can also carry a note, piece of your training log or passage that reminds you of all the hard work you’ve done and how well you’ve prepared. I ran in my first NCAA championship almost 10 years ago and I still remember the note a good friend gave me the week before the race. Every time I got nervous before what was then the biggest race of my life, I read the note and immediately felt at ease. I used that note for years and it always dissipated any nerves I had.

RELATED: Put Your Race In Perspective

3. Channel Your Nerves With Mental Imagery

Many of the world’s top runners practice mental imagery and visualization before their biggest races. Perhaps one of the most well-known examples of the power of mental imagery is the gold-medal performance of Mark Plaatjes at the World Championships marathon in 1993. Plaatjes extensively practiced visualization techniques while preparing for his race, so much so that he knew every undulation on the course. Despite it being the biggest race if his life, Plaatjes toed the line completely confident about how he would perform — he knew the course inside and out and had already visualized success in his mind.

Practice visualization techniques in your training to prepare for every possible scenario and reduce your anxiety on race day.

4. Create Flexible Goals

For some runners, nerves result from an increasing fear of failure. Perhaps you’re not worried about external factors such as weather or your competition, but are instead afraid of failing or not accomplishing what you consider success. To combat this, Sheehan suggests runners, “make a good, great, and awesome goal for each race.”

“The good goal is usually something that no matter what happens you know you can achieve, such as being focused and giving 100 percent no matter what. The great goal may be a personal best or something to build upon the good goal. The awesome goal is something that, if everything comes together, it’s something you can accomplish. Using this goal setting helps ease the nerves and allows you to find success and positives from every race.”

At the end of the day if you’ve done everything possible to give yourself the opportunity to have success, then there’s not much more you can do. One of the best — and sometimes most frustrating — lines a coach once told me is, “working hard doesn’t guarantee success, it only gives you the opportunity to succeed.”

At the end of the day, all you can ask is to take advantage of those opportunities to the best of your ability.

RELATED: Strategies For Overcoming Race Anxiety