About Those Pre-Race Nerves and What You Can Do About Them

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The time is 11:30 p.m. You were supposed to be asleep at least an hour ago. Instead, here you are tossing and turning and fixating on the time that you HAVE to get up.

Alarm will go off at 5:30am.

I’ll snooze until 5:45am.

I have to rise by 5:45am.

REPEAT.

5:45AM!

Are you remembering that brain?

What if I don’t hear my alarm?

What if I miss the race?

Oh my God, it’s midnight now. I’m only going to get 5 hours of sleep, 5.5 if I’m lucky. That amount of sleep is definitely not ideal for racing a half marathon.

STOP. The first tip I have to offer in calming those pre-race nerves is to accept the fact that your sleep is likely going to suck the night before a race. That’s why it’s better to focus on getting a good night’s rest two or three nights out from race day. But the night before a race isn’t the only time we have to deal with those pesky pre-race nerves that Salty talked about a few weeks ago. The morning of the race can be pretty stressful, too. There are reasons for that; it’s not as all in your head as you think.

What happens to your body before a race?

The body is, shall we say, dumb. It doesn’t know the difference between real or perceived threats. It also hates the unknown. Your body reacts to a race as a threat, causing a flight or fight response in your brain. Back in the day, like way back in the caveman days, we were always preparing for battle and other real threats such as wild animals chasing us as we hunted and gathered food. As time went on, our threats were less about actual threats to our life and limb, but more about being late for appointments or how we’re going to pay this or that bill. However, the body never got the memo, so even though our life is not actually in danger, when we are in a race setting that causes us acute stress and we experience the following symptoms of the flight or fight response:

Increased heart rate. An increased heart rate signals the body that it’s time to prepare for battle. The opposite would be struggling to get warmed up, or a slowed heart rate. Because this post deals with nerves, we’ll focus solely on the anxious side of the performance spectrum. But if you are struggling to get pumped up before a race, it does help to put on some encouraging tunes and do some quick strides.

Excessive pooping and peeing. The jury is still out on why this happens, but the proposed reasons range from ridding the body of excessive waste in order to optimize physical performance to secreting putrid smells in order to ward off an enemy. Nonetheless, this is a common symptom of pre-race nerves. You may also feel like you have to pee close to the race start time, but often it’s less a full bladder and more that anxiety at work. The feeling should subside once the race gets going, because you chose fight (rather than flight) and that parasympathetic response helps to increase bladder control. At the opposite end of the spectrum, you may have trouble pooping or peeing before the race. In this instance, it helps to drink coffee, lots of coffee. Alternatively, be prepared to make a pit stop mid-race. Hopefully you won’t have to, though!

Other fun symptoms. You may shake, sweat more, feel tense, experience tunnel vision, or your hearing may become more sensitive. All of these symptoms are normal responses to a perceived threat. They also mirror symptoms of a panic attack so it’s important to keep that mental game in check to be able to consciously differentiate between a real or perceived threat.

You CAN be anxious and still do this.
You CAN be anxious and still do this.

Improving our mental game

So now that we’ve normalized all that weird stuff that is happening to you physically on race morning, we are armed and ready to prepare your mind for what lies ahead. Just by becoming aware of what is going on internally, we are able to provide the brain with some predictability. Remember how I mentioned that the body likes predictability? Well, there is some.

However, many of these physical symptoms are so strong that it becomes quite challenging to calm the brain’s reaction to them. How does the brain react to your racing heart, excessive trips to the bathroom, shaking, queasiness, etc.? It tends to freak out:

Will it be hot? What if I wore too much?

Will I bonk? What if I don’t have enough fluid or gels?

Will it be cold? What if I wore too little?

Why am I doing this? This sucks. I want to go home! I suck!

Whoa! Yeah, without a little effort to improve the situation, our pre-race brains can really sabotage not only our performances, but the enjoyment of our race experiences as well. So what can we do?

Start with a little mindfulness. Observe what’s going on physically, which will naturally calm the mind. Accepting that your brain is just doing its pre-race thing, is really helpful. Fighting these thoughts or getting irritated with them and trying to make them stop, will only stress you out more, and make the situation worse. If you catch your mind freaking out, wandering, questioning, rambling, or scattering, acknowledge it. Hmmm, brain, you sure are pretty active right now. 

Plan ahead. Saving everything for the night before or morning of the race will only add to your pre-race stress. It often seems like getting race-ready will take just a few minutes, but by the time you gather everything from directions, parking info, food, and clothing it is quite an undertaking for the night before or the day of a race, which can add to stress. Devoting five to ten minutes a day starting a week out from race day can reduce race stress. Obviously you’re not prepping your oatmeal a week out, but doing what you can and even just writing down the things you will still need to do on race day can go a long way.

Breath awareness. The breath is our centering point. It is the essence of life. You can almost always count on it to refocus.There’s a misconception that there’s a right way and a wrong way to breathe. The only wrong way to breathe is not breathing at all! When under stress, our breath tends to become shallow. You can use your breath to quiet your mind, simply by observing it. My breaths are more shallow than usual or innnnnn, outttttttttt. You can use this to slow your breathing down too to try to relax your body, but observe how the breath feels first before focusing on slowing it.

Practice your mantras. You got thisYou’re toughSmooth and strong all race long. Pre-race time is now the perfect time to practice those mantras you made when you were relaxed and dreaming of your goals. Now that the pressure is on, you’ll need to call on these little tricks to help you focus on the goal at hand. If you wrote them on paper, take the paper with you to the race so you can rehearse. If sharpies are your thing, write your most powerful one on your hand to use mid-race.

Now you’re all set!

Well, it may take some practice, but when it comes time for race day, knowing that the tension and stress is normal can alleviate much of the stress that interferes with your performance. Next time you race or even do a big workout, try to observe how your body physically reacts and then see how your mind responds. The more you get used to noticing these reactions and accepting them, the quicker you’ll be able to overcome those negative vibes … and the better your race experience will be.

What are your tricks and tips for overcoming race day nerves?

I write about mindfulness, mental health, and the professional sport of running with the occasional poking fun at the sport. When I am not running, I'm either helping people as a counselor or trying to make them laugh as an amateur open mic comedian.

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8 comments

  1. A really well-written piece, Ginger!
    I like the bits about:
    – Planning & doing in advance so as not to compound the racing nerves
    – Acknowledging the nerves as they appear – Ah, yes, here you are! All is well!

  2. I packed a massive tackle box with anything I could ever possibly need for a race and I keep it in my trunk. Everything from spare socks to safety pins, bandaids, extra gels, ear warmer, gloves, spare Road ID, spare headlamp, etc. Knowing that I have the box relieves some of my anxiety about forgetting something because I know it doesn’t matter — whatever it is, I have a spare.

    If we’re traveling out of town for a race — which typically means it’s a full or half marathon and therefore usually a key race — I have a packing list saved in Evernote and I start putting everything in a pile about a week out. Then the day before, I can cull the pile and get rid of things that I don’t actually need (Tracy, how are you going to wear 8 pairs of the exact same Balega socks in two days?). I also use Evernote to store our hotel confirmations, race registration confirmations, dinner reservation confirmations, race start/finish locations, etc. (I did a blog post on this — https://tgrunfit.com/2015/10/28/monumental-before-during-and-after/).

    Lastly, I accept that those nerves are there to help propel me through a strong race, so I use music, mantas and favorite quotes to help focus my energy. The thing that really starts the clamor in my head is the national anthem, so I’m always one of those people fidgeting during it then trying to get in a last couple strides or hopping up and down. (You may think I’m trying to stay loose, but really I’m just trying not to pop.)

    Great post — anyone interested in the mental side of competition should also check out Matt Fitzgerald’s “How Bad Do You Want It.”