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13 Tricks To Overcome Your Pre-Race Anxiety

by Sportitude
29 Nov 2019

You’ve run on this road before in training but it isn’t until race day or the week leading up to it that you shake in your running shoes and second-guess your body and abilities.

Like illness or injury, pre-race anxiety can be destructive to both your headspace and physical performance. Try these 13 anxiety-busting tricks to banish self-doubt and run your best race.

Know it’s OK to feel anxiety

If you try to force out or avoid anxiety, it’s more likely to have a damaging grip on your mental health. Instead of fighting or running from it, try to see it for what it is - an emotion, not who you are – and it’s OK to feel and accept it.

With this acceptance, you can build up a tolerance to anxiety and naturally decrease its intensity over time.

You can observe your anxiety non-judgmentally within your mind, reflecting on it from different angles as a spectator and know that anxious thoughts aren't fact - they don't have to stop you in your tracks.

Reframe your anxiety into excitement

Your body doesn’t know the difference between anxiety and excitement, so try shifting your mindset. Rather than allowing negative self-talk to run rampant, recite a positive mantra like "I can do this" or “I am excited” instead of “I am anxious” to exercise your ‘positivity muscles’ and see your anxiety in a new light.

The way we label our emotions can have a real effect on how we feel – with the ability to turn a perceived negative (i.e. anxiety) into a positive (i.e. excitement). With ‘mental exercise’, optimistic thinking can become second nature and in turn, boost your confidence.

Stand tall and smile

Trade closed off postures for ‘power poses' - stand tall, shoulders back, chest raised and smile. It may sound silly at first, but smiling releases feel-good endorphins and acts as a natural relaxant to alleviate stress hormones. It will absolutely make you feel lighter and more positive in the moment.

Power poses can slow down a ‘busy brain’ and reboot how you feel - ‘tricking’ your body into releasing more testosterone and reducing cortisol (the stress hormone) to feel self-empowered and confident in the moments leading up to the race.

Unwind with downtime

As much as you live and breathe running, setting aside time in the days prior to the race to unwind with non-running activities can be beneficial – whether it’s curling up with a juicy book, listening to relaxing tunes or if running is your therapy, an easy, no-pressure jog.

If you have the opportunity surround yourself with nature, look at the stars or into the waves to give yourself some perspective. Yoga can be rejuvenating and ease your stress but be careful to keep it short and gentle, and avoid burning yourself out with new challenges too close to race day.

Surround yourself with a support network beyond the pavement – because underneath the running clothing and race day pressure you’re you and your performance doesn’t define you.

Prioritise sleep without pressure

Pre-race anxiety may interfer with the quality or duration of your shuteye, so prioritising your sleep in the week leading up to the race is particularly important.

Like your competitors, you may not sleep well the last night before the race, and that's OK. By choosing to accept that rather than stressing over getting your 8 hours of shuteye, you'll give your body the opportunity to drift off to sleep more naturally, without the build-up of mental pressure.

Eat healthy and stay hydrated

Food is your fuel and can influence your mood, so be sure to enjoy wholesome and nourishing meals leading up to your race.

Definitely don’t try anything new the night before – stick to a high-carb, low-fat and low-fibre dinner to provide energy without aggravating a sensitive stomach that may already be doing loop de loops with nerves.

Stay hydrated with water and reduce alcohol intake – alcohol can have different effects on different people, so it’s best to save the celebration bubbly until after you’ve crossed the finish line.

Compartmentalise your training

Ever fixate over a lousy training session? If this sounds familiar, don’t beat yourself up.

Assess each workout for a limited time, then mentally tuck away your race training into a box, setting it aside from the rest of your life. It's not about denial, but about cleaning up your headspace like you would an untidy room - decluttering your mind from unconstructive criticism.

By giving yourself emotional breathing space, you'll be able to find the joy of running and be more mentally refreshed on race day.

Visualise your race plan

Visualise all aspects of the race from start to finish – from waking up and warming up, to breathing calming at the starting line, getting into the rhythm of your movement, setting a good pace and crossing the finish line with a smile.

Also imagine working through race day difficulties like hitting the proverbial wall or getting a blister so you’re not mentally thrown off balance by the unexpected. This mental preparation will allow you to react with a cool head in the moment, knowing you’ll be able to adapt and overcome obstacles.

Let go of what you can’t control, prepare for what you can

Being prepared in advanced will take a load off your shoulders on the morning of the race, allowing you to focus on your mindset, fit in a nourishing brekkie and arrive early to reduce stress. It can be hectic juggling everything you need to do in your mind so write a race day checklist to ease your mental load.

Set aside or pack your essentials into your hydration pack in the days leading up to your race – including your race belt, energy gels and other running nutrition, music and running headphones (listening to music before and during your race may help lift nerves), anti-chafing products and toilet paper (for long distance events, you’ll be relieved you packed it!).

Anxiety often grows from a sense of no control: You can’t control the weather, but you can bring along weather-appropriate gear to make your run more comfortable. You can’t control your competitors, but you can prepare your body, strive to give your best and be the master of your own breathing and pace.

Practice mindfulness before and during your race

Stand aside from the cacophony of the starting line and dedicate a minute to mindful breathing to help you stay in tune with your body and find your calm centre.

Practicing mindfulness helps you stay present in the moment, allowing you to direct your focus on your race plan and giving your best, rather than results or the finish line itself – which can be daunting, particularly on endurance races.

To find a flow in your movement and maintain a calm, grounded headspace, it helps to have something to ‘anchor’ you in the moment – whether it’s staying conscious of your breathing, the soothing rhythm of your feet striking the road or elements from your external surroundings like birds singing.

Race only against yourself

Worried that your competitors have trained harder, are fitter or more prepared?

Break up with your need to compare. When it comes to social media, it has the power to motivate and connect you with an online fitness tribe, but your relationship with it can become toxic if you make unhealthy comparisons and forget that you're seeing only a piece of the puzzle.

In truth, you’re in it together with your competitors – you’re not alone. Trust in your training and remember that no matter how many people are around you, you’re only ever racing against yourself.

Measure success by self-improvement

Expectations carry a lot of pressure and can leave you tight and anxious at the potential for failure. Although quantifiable goals like crushing your PB can be a source of motivation, it’s important to have balance.

If you have results-driven anxiety, focus on running well for your fitness level and the conditions - not on running perfectly or a specific time.

Success should be measured by the effort you put in – not by outrunning your competitors, but by self-improvement. All you can do is your best on the day and you’ll feel a sense of relief and calm in accepting that.

Be proud of yourself before you step over the starting line

It’s easy to spiral into the mindset of “I don’t want to mess this up”, “This is my only chance” or "I have to beat my time, I've worked too hard to fail".

Know there will always be another race – your journey doesn’t end here. Celebrate yourself for the hard work you’ve put in, focus on the workouts you’ve crushed and be proud of your accomplishments even before you step over the starting line.

Finally, remind yourself why you’re here (to have an awesome day) and why you run – for the love of it. This is far more important than what time you set or the position you place and a continuous source of motivation for the long run, beyond the finish line.