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Race Anxiety - what, why, and how to beat it

I have always suffered to some degree with pre-race anxiety – the bigger the race, the worse it gets. I can spend the whole of race week in a barely-controlled high stress state – irritable, jumpy, nervous, and sometimes unable to spot that these feelings are connected to my race goals. At my most recent event, I semi-sabotaged myself by letting my anxiety take over, making decisions in the day or two prior to the event that in hindsight seem almost calculated to impact my performance – poor hydration, poor nutrition choices, poor sleep and stress management. Although I managed to recover the race and hang on for a strong finish, I wanted to dig a bit deeper into the pre-race anxiety – what is causing it, and how can I combat it? I hope some of these ideas might be useful to you if you suffer similarly.

The first thing to be clear about is the difference between nervous excitement and anxiety. It is normal (and good!) to feel some jitters before a race – these will actually help us perform well. So if in the day or two before, and on the morning of your event, you feel excited, a few butterflies in your stomach, a feeling of being raring to go, alert and switched on…this is fantastic! Your pre-race jitters are setting you up to perform at your best.

On the other hand, if you feel so nervous that you feel sick, your mind is full of excess chatter and noise that’s making it hard to think clearly, you feel drained before you’ve even started the race, or you feel scared (as opposed to healthy excitement/nerves)…these are all symptoms of anxiety. The problem with these types of feelings is that, unlike those above which will positively impact your performance, these anxious feelings will have a negative effect. This could be similar to my problem – being so overwhelmed in the days leading up to the race that you don’t make good decisions about preparation. Or it could be during the race itself – for example being too tense, or your heart rate being so high that you can’t relax and run as you normally would. The anxiety could cause negative thoughts to spiral in your mind, impacting your mental resilience and ability to problem-solve. It’s clear that it’s worth trying to tackle this problem, rather than accepting excessive anxiety as part of the racing experience.

I tried to examine the source of my anxiety. My personal worries always seem to stem from an over-focus on an outcome goal. Whether I have given myself a time or pace target, or have identified a hope for a particular placing (e.g. to be within the top 10), I feel a lot of pressure. I worry about how tough it’s going to be to achieve my ambitious goal, and fear that I won’t be equal to the challenge. Anxiety could also stem from a fear of failure (e.g. worrying you can’t complete the race at all), worrying about others’ expectations or perceptions (Strava has a lot to answer for here) or being overly (and falsely) concerned that you haven’t trained sufficiently for the event.

I think that some of these sources of anxiety are related to legitimate fears. To push oneself to the limit, it will be tough, and it’s right to be a bit apprehensive about that. But it doesn’t mean you’re not equal to the challenge – combating this anxiety is about self-belief. Some of these sources of anxiety are false – you have trained suitably for your event, and it’s important to challenge any potential falsehoods you are telling yourself. But neither of these solutions are as simple as just telling yourself to think differently! So, here are five specific strategies for combating pre-race anxiety, to allow yourself to make good decisions, and to enjoy your race:

1. Use process goals. This is my number one suggestion for any athlete struggling with performance-related anxiety. Instead of thinking about what you want to achieve (outcome) focus on how you will do it (process). This means you’re concentrating on the individual steps that will lead to the desired outcome, rather than trying to will it into being without actually doing anything to make it more likely. In my case, this process goal focus needs to start two or three days before the event – so that I make the right fuelling and hydration decisions. For others, the bigger focus needs to be during the event, for example remembering to fuel, or to pace oneself in the early stages. If needs be, write down the steps of your pre-race process plan so that you can tick them off as you go, and to stop yourself from ignoring the plan at the last minute.

2. If you have specific worries, rather than just a general feeling of anxiety, do some ‘what if’ planning. Write down each concern you have about the race. Then note down how you will prevent this from happening, and then the back-up plan you’d use if it did. For example, perhaps I am worried that I will become mentally defeated during a long race, and want to drop out. My plan to prevent this from happening would be to pace the race well, and to keep fuelled to make sure my mental energy stays high. I might also aim to chat to other runners during the race, to keep my spirits up. If I did reach the point of wanting to drop out, my back up plan might be to tag onto another runner for support, or to eat and drink at the next checkpoint before making a decision.

3. Have a ‘why’ for the event that is not anything to do with your outcome targets for it. For example, even if I have an outcome goal such as ‘to finish the race in under three hours’, I try to also have a ‘why’ such as ‘to enjoy a beautiful route that I haven’t experienced before’. Then, if the outcome goals are getting to me, I can refocus on my ‘why’, and remember that running is about more than fixed outcomes.

4. Immediately prior to the race, warm up properly. Getting your heart rate elevated intentionally, through activity (finish the warm up with a little progression, or a few strides) can really help to calm the anxious feelings.

5. Use visualisation. Many pro sportspeople practise visualisation as a key part of their race preparation. This involves spending time imagining yourself executing the race well, and crossing the line strong and happy. Apparently just the practice of picturing yourself doing things makes it more likely that you will do them in the race. This could work well for someone whose mind gets very busy on the start line – try to push the anxious thoughts to one side, and distract yourself with some positive visualisation instead.

I am racing this weekend…so I’ll be trying to put my own advice into practice!

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