Stress and pressure are a natural part of the training cycle as you approach race day. Optimal performance in your event comes down to many factors, many of which have been set in motion in the previous months during your training cycle. Improperly managed emotion, stress, or anxiety in the days leading up to a race, sometimes even just on the morning of the race itself, can take the well laid training path and turn your race into a brutal experience with the potential for poor performance and disappointing outcomes. The underlying path for pre-race anxiety is completely normal, and in many ways a healthy response. Developing a plan for embracing the pre-race jitters and working with these experiences will guide you to showing up to the starting ready to perform at your best.
There is no silver bullet for eliminating pre-race anxiety, nor will it work for you to focus on trying to eliminate anxiety in the days or weeks leading up to an event. Performance anxiety is a natural response for everyone participating in endurance events, from professionals and elites, to competitive age groupers, weekend warriors and beginners. Pre-race anxiety is deeply connected to at least 3 psychological components:
- Perceived judgment/evaluation of your performance – even if just by your own standards, but also how you think you will be evaluated by friends, family, coaches, Facebook, Strava etc. The greater the perceived judgment, the higher the likelihood of anxiety.
- Connection to participating in a meaningful/important event. Meaning has the potential to grow exponentially given the weight you place on the race, whether you’re gunning for a Boston Qualifying marathon time, trying to set a PR, or if this is your A race or only race for the season. The higher importance or meaning placed on a given event, the greater the felt sense of pressure.
- Uncertainty about what may happen during the race, typically broken down into 2 categories: Internal factors (did I do enough work during training? Will I be able to push hard the entirety of the race? Do I have what it takes to be successful?) and External Factors (What will the weather be? How steep is that hill at mile 20). The more uncertainty you connect to in each area, the higher the intensity of anxiety.
These three mental components become the cognitive triad for pre-race anxiety. The potential for experiencing heightened negative emotionality grows the more emphasis you place in each of these areas. The beautiful thing is that once identified, you can get to work to address the cognitive or belief level factors on each level. Pre-race anxiety need not be feared, but rather embraced as a sign that you are preparing for action in a meaningful way. Here are some tips for embracing the pre-race jitters and turning them into a high performance based mindset:
Don’t Try To Relax
Many people may tell you to “calm down” or “relax” as your event draws near. Although well intended, this advice has a tendency to backfire. Anxiety is an arousal, preparation emotion. Anxiety signals the sympathetic nervous system in the body to prepare for some impending call to action or queues a requirement for some type of physical response. Excitement is an arousal emotion too, but removes the negative connotations associated with “anxiety.” Research has shown that shifting the mind to perceive pre-race jitters not as anxiety but rather as excitement shifts your experience away from a threat mindset to an opportunity mindset. An opportunity mindset puts you in the framework to showcase the work you’ve done in training to realize the goals you’ve established. Learning how to channel the natural rise of pre-race anxiety into excitement has a positive impact on your performance.
Breathe and Stand Tall
Our posture plays a vital role in how we experience and shape emotions. Standing tall, with shoulders back and
our head held high provides a felt sense of confidence and communicates to our bodies a sense of focused preparation. Standing tall while breathing deeply and intentionally will help take the bite out of the intensity of any lingering, heightened emotions. It also communicates to our nervous system that there is no impending sense of danger or threat.
I Am Statements
Reframing anxiety as excitement in your mind is a great starting point. But we can do so much more in our self-talk to build a high performance mindset. This starts by taking control of the “I am” statements you tell yourself. Anxiety has a tendency to shape your thoughts into fear based language usually starting with questions beginning with “What if…” followed by some type of catastrophe: “I fail, the weather sucks, I blow up at mile 20, my friends make fun of me.” You can influence each and every thought through executing positive, proactive, performance based “I am” statements. Examples include, “I am excited for this race. I am prepared for the challenge ahead. I am confident I can execute the race plan regardless of conditions.” The more specific and genuine the “I ams” are to you and your race, the better.
Be Grateful and Connect to Something Bigger Than Yourself
Research has demonstrated that gratitude can be an antidote to feelings of anxiety and has a profound impact on performance. In the days leading to an event, take note of 3 things you are grateful for each night as you prepare for bed. Again, make them specific, genuine, and connected to your race. Examples, “I am grateful for staying healthy this training cycle. I am grateful for seeing success on those harder training sessions. I am grateful for my family’s support to race this weekend.” Likewise, connecting to something bigger than yourself helps you shift perception away from any lingering anxiety you may be experiencing. This could be connecting to the spirit of the running community that comes together for big events or taking a deliberate mental note that there are countless others who are not be in a position to participate in these types of events.
Put it all together with a Meditation Practice
Meditation plays a key role in performance and mindfulness is a huge buzzword right now. Meditation helps you regulate emotion and intentionally shift focus, and is best done if part of a daily practice throughout your training cycle. Even if you are not a regular meditator, you can achieve similar benefits by following this same practice in the week or days leading to an event. The included meditation was specifically designed for the starting corral in the minutes leading to a race. It’s 6 minutes long and downloadable, and helps guide your focus through the same strategies described above. This is also a helpful practice to listen to daily in the days leading up to your event.
Dr. Justin Ross is a clinical psychologist in Denver, CO, where he specializes in sports performance psychology and health/wellness psychology. He co-owns MindBodyHealth, and is also a recreational athlete, with a 3:03 Marathon PR. You can connect with Dr. Ross on Twitter.