Standing at the starting line ready to race is always exciting despite butterflies in my stomach and pre-race anxiety. However, once I settle in my pace, the butterflies are gone. But how do we beat those pre-race jitters?
Pre-race anxiety is not uncommon, according to health clinician, mental performance consultant, and avid runner Duncan O’Mahony. He said, “Because all sports individuals experience a certain amount of stress, all athletes will experience anxiety in their sport. [Therefore], anxiety is to be viewed as either facilitative or debilitative with regard to performance. In the general population, an anxiety disorder is thought to affect 1 in 3 people at some point in their lifetime.”
O’Mahony, in his private practice, states, “My high-performance athletes range in age from eight and up. Amongst this population, most are healthy individuals trying to push themselves to greatness, while the others are exceptional athletes who have concurrent mental health concerns that are affecting their performance.”
Ways to Cope
Some strategies to help do your best in the event and overcome any pre-race anxiety are below.
Be well prepared for the event
Preparation is key to dealing with anxiety while training for an event such as a marathon or a snowshoeing race. Having a plan will keep you calm. Also, having a backup plan is a good idea if your fitness goal has changed. For example, if you have been training for a half, but you are not ready, perhaps do a shorter distance.
Visualize the route
There are a few techniques you can use to limit your anxiety, including visualization. O’Mahony mentions, “The old cliché practice like you play and play like you practice is a good rule of thumb. The use of visualization, breathing techniques, and even goal setting is important in the training phase.”
He adds, “Anxiety for most people is either a physical or cognitive trait. Understanding how your anxiety manifests and how you respond to it is the first step in taming it.”
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Warm up before you start
There are many benefits to warming up before the race, including subsiding any pre-race anxiety. For example, warming up helps prevent injuries and warms up your muscles, enhancing your performance.
Before every race, I usually jog for about 5-10 minutes, depending on the distance. In my warm-up to fight off pre-race jitters, I will run part of the course to get a better feel for it. It is also a good idea to do approximately a 5-minute cool-down followed by some stretching.
Keep a positive mindset
It’s amazing what a positive mindset can do to help us get through tough times, including anxiety.
For example, “Positive self-talk goes a long way to calming the nerves and getting someone in their optimal state of mind. Trigger and cue words are good reminders when self-doubt creeps in. This can be a power phrase, a single word, or even a tactile thing, such as pulling on a jersey, slapping your leg, or pumping up your chest. Make it your own and make it have meaning to you”, states Mahony.
Also, mindful breathing is essential. Using your breath as an anchor to focus yourself and let the thoughts come and go is a skill that takes repeated practice and is very effective when used regularly.
Anxiety as a Tool for Success
In addition to the strategies above, I asked Duncan about the relationship between anxiety and athletic performance.
He explains, “Anxiety is a necessity to perform at one’s best. Too much anxiety and performance will drop. Not enough, and performance will come up short. Basically, anxiety is the body’s physical response to stress. We need it for survival. Athletes, over time, become aware of their thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations in response to stress. Understanding how to manage these states and [learning] what the optimal state for that individual is will help navigate them through the task at hand.”
O’Mahony also pointed out some signs to look out for to see if you have anxiety. These signs include increased heart rate and breathing, jittery and fidgeting, nausea, irritability, and focus and concentration troubles. Again, everyone is different, and understanding how you respond to stress is the key.
Have you ever had pre-race anxiety? What are some strategies you’ve used to combat it?
This article was first published on December 27, 2018, and was most recently updated on December 9, 2021.
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