by Nicholas Larade
Stepping up to the start line can be a nerve-wracking experience, whether it’s your first 5K or your tenth marathon. Learning to overcome your pre-race jitters can be one of the factors separating you from your best performance.
Pre-race jitters can manifest in many different ways. Some runners may not be able to sleep the night before the race, while other runners may forget important items like their race bib, nutrition products or shoes. Pre-race jitters are one subset of a greater range of issues that fall under performance anxiety.
Performance anxiety is a level of nervousness that has a negative effect on your desired activity. Being slightly nervous can help you achieve your best race, but if you are too nervous, you may see harmful effects like changes in your sleeping or eating patterns, chaotic emotions before the event, or performing below your capabilities. Ideally, you want to retain the positive effect of your anxiety while minimizing the harmful effects. However, like your running, learning to harness your nervousness for better performances takes practice and planning.
Performance anxiety is not limited just to race day. You have probably experienced similar feelings of nervousness before other situations like public speaking or a job interview. Applying the coping strategies that you already know for these other situations is a good place to start. One of the simplest methods for reducing your anxiety is to practice. Similar to rehearsing the speech that you have to give, doing the required running for your race goes a long way towards reducing your nervousness. You can use your accomplishments in your self-talk before or during the race. Another strategy that you can use to reduce pre-race anxiety is to develop a routine for race day (and the days preceding your event). This routine may involve eating the same meal before your run, a specific shake-out run, or listening to a favourite song to distract you and get you excited for the race.
Most of us may never be running for anything other than to finish the race or to try for a personal best, but there are lessons that we can learn from elites in overcoming performance anxiety. If you bring a professional attitude to your race preparation, that attitude will often help to reduce your anxiety by the time you get to the start line. Begin by keeping a logbook so that you can track things like your nutrition and pre-race running to help determine what is under your control. The more control that you feel you have in the lead-up to your event, the better you will feel about your race. A logbook can also be used to recognize situations that cause you to feel anxious about your performance. For example, the actual start line may not cause you to feel nervous, but you may become anxious from speaking with other runners prior to the race. Once you have identified anxiety-inducing situations, you can start adjusting your routine to minimize their effect.
One simple, easy-to-apply method to reduce anxiety before and during a race is to do breathing exercises. If you are anxious, you tend to take shallow, quick breaths, which can actually make you feel more nervous about your race. Your breathing should be deeper and start from your diaphragm to ensure that your body has the oxygen that it needs and to give yourself a chance to relax. As tough as it may be to do while running, reminding yourself to breathe deeply and relax.
Proper breathing can be also combined with meditation practice to help you further manage performance anxiety. Practice meditation at home before introducing it on race day, as new techniques can have a harmful effect if not planned or practiced thoughtfully in advance. Find a quiet place where you are comfortable physically and mentally, and sit or lie in a relaxed position. Close your eyes and think of calming words like ‘relaxed,’ ‘calm’ or ‘excited’ to help reframe your anxiety. Use deep breathing and repeat the words in rhythm, and as you get more used to your meditation, you can make your sessions longer. Some runners use music during meditation to help distract them from outside thoughts. Once practiced at home, you can apply meditation and deep breathing before the race by finding a quiet spot to focus on how you want to feel in the race.
Nicholas Larade has a Master’s of Science in Exercise and Sport Science, centered on Sport Psychology, and is the manager at the Fredericton Running Room.