“Any runner who denies having fears, nerves, or some other kind of disposition is a bad athlete, or a liar.” – 1950s British Olympian Gordon Pirie
The bad news? Pre-race jitters are inevitable. The good news? It’s a normal part of the process. Whether you’re a seasoned veteran aiming for a new PR, or a rookie concerned about just getting to the finish line, nerves are natural and can add an element of excitement to your race.
But when pre-race fears become more than just nervous energy, it’s important to nip it in the bud before your performance is affected and it starts to take all the fun out of racing. Regardless of whether it’s a string of bad races, a layoff due to injury, or merely a lack of confidence in your level of fitness, here are a few tips to help keep you on track come race day.
You may not appreciate the importance of setting out your race-day gear the night before the event until you make a critical mistake…and then you never forget.
A few years back, the gun went off at the Nike Women’s Half Marathon in San Francisco when I realized that I had, in a cloud of nervous forgetfulness, left my timing chip in the hotel room a mile or so away. Without any time to go back, I ended up running the race chip-less, finishing sans official time or record of my participation.
Lesson learned; now I lay out everything the night before and do a double-check before bedtime.
Walk through every aspect of the race in your mind’s eye, from warming up at the starting line to navigating the course and crossing the finish line triumphantly. Expect a certain amount of discomfort or pain if you’re pushing your limits, but know that you’ve mentally rehearsed it and can handle anything that comes your way.
When all else fails, imagine your worst-case scenario, and how you’d cope with it. Chances are the reality won’t be half as bad as what you can dream up.
Race-day nerves can wreak havoc on your digestive system, so tread carefully when it comes to what you ingest in the hours before your event. Skipping a meal is not an option (especially for longer endurance events), so look for foods that are easy to digest and have a mix of nutrients, such as bananas, sports bars, oatmeal or even bagels and toast with peanut butter.
If you’re wary of how something will set, do a trial run during training to work out the kinks in a more controlled environment.
Line up correctly
There’s nothing more unnerving than realizing that you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time on race morning.
Avoid angering the elites or getting stuck behind slower runners by lining up according to your closest predicted finishing time. This way you can start with people who are at a similar pace, which will help you relax and focus on your own performance.
Channel the tortoise
I’ve witnessed all too many nervous runners who shoot across the starting line like jackrabbits when the gun goes off, only to slow to a shuffle 200 yards later when their adrenaline wears off and oxygen debt sets in.
Regardless of how good you feel, resist that temptation. Hold back a bit in the early stages to find your pace, and once you’ve relaxed into a rhythm, start pushing.
Run your own race
I’d argue that only a small part of the race is physical; the rest is mental. Fight the urge to compare yourself to those around you. Unless you’re a top-ranked elite athlete, there will always be someone faster than you. And on the flip side, there will always be someone slower than you.
So pick your route, stick to your plan and race against the most daunting competitor: Yourself.
Think happy thoughts
Above all, it’s important to focus on what you already have achieved, rather than what you might not. Whether it’s attempting a new distance, making it through a grueling training schedule or just having the guts to step up to the starting line, you’ve got something to celebrate.