Runners who I coach often ask me, “You don’t still get nervous before races, do you?” I always tell them that even the most seasoned runners get some pre-race anxiety. However, over many years of running and racing, I’ve developed routines that help me manage my nerves and actually make them work to my advantage.
Here are five ways runners can deal with performance anxiety and take advantage of their pre-race excitement:
1. Practice deep breathing.
If you’re anxious, your breathing becomes shallow. Breathing deeply from your belly has a calming effect and it can also prevent side stitches. Work on belly breathing during your training runs and, by race day, you’ll do it without even having to think about it. If you have trouble practicing deep breathing on your own, try doing a guided breathing meditation using an app such as Calm or Take a Break.
2. Say, “I’m excited!”
Rather than telling yourself (and anyone else who will listen!) that you’re so nervous and afraid, keep repeating, “I’m so excited!” If someone asks you how you’re feeling about your upcoming race, just say, “I’m excited!” And tell yourself, “I feel body preparing myself for this challenge.”
Just calling your pre-race anxiety and its physical sensations something positive can completely reframe your anxiety and make you see it as an enhancing, motivating force rather than a debilitating one. Your “excitement” will make you feel sharp, pumped, and ready to take on your race.
3. Visualize your race.
Swimmer Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympic athlete of all-time with 28 medals, is well- known for his mental toughness and pre-race preparation. His long-time coach, Bob Bowman, designed a visualization routine for Michael when he was a young swimmer, to help him stay calm and focused. In his book, The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg describes what Phelps did when Bowman instructed him to “watch the videotape”:
The videotape wasn’t real. Rather, it was a mental visualization of the perfect race. Each night before falling asleep and each morning before waking up, Phelps would imagine himself jumping off the blocks and, in slow motion, swimming flawlessly. He would visualize his strokes, the walls of the pool, his turns, and the finish. He would imagine the wake behind his body, the water dripping off his lips as his mouth cleared the surface, what it would feel like to rip off his cap at the end. He would lie in bed with his eyes shut and watch the entire competition, the smallest details, again and again, until he knew each second by heart….Eventually, all Bowman had to do before a race was whisper, “Get the videotape ready,” and Phelps would settle down and crush the competition.
While Phelps’ visualization techniques were obviously effective for him, you don’t have to go to such lengths to reap the benefits. A couple of weeks before your race, begin visualizing yourself starting, running, and finishing. Envision your race plan and how you’ll want to feel. Think positively about your training and tell yourself that you’ll feel confident and ready. If you keep using these visualization techniques, that positive mind-set will become second nature on race day.
4. Do an easy warm up.
Standing around at the starting area can make you even more nervous. Go for a five-minute jog to clear your head and stay loose. Do some dynamic stretches to get your blood flowing and muscles ready. Focus on taking deep breaths.
5. Use music.
Many athletes like to listen to music as part of their pre-race ritual. Like many other Olympic athletes, Michael Phelps also used music as a pre-race ritual and calming strategy. Before every race, he’d put on his headphones, listen to the same playlist, and continue the same pre-race ritual that he had been doing for years.
Create a playlist of songs that get you pumped and listen to them as you warm up or just sit and relax before heading to the starting line. Listening to the same songs for every race will be your cue to signal that it’s almost “go time.” In addition to helping you get in the zone, listening to music is an easy way to drown out other runners’ nervous pre-race chatter.
Also see: How to Be a More Resilient Runner