Quieting the Quakes: How to Deal with Pre-Race Anxiety

A good mantra for race day
A good mantra for race day

Recently I ran my fall goal race, the Cambridge Oktoberfest 5K, and I experienced a full-blown case of pre-race anxiety.  Starting about a week before the race, every time I thought about it I felt sweaty and sick to my stomach.  Though I always feel somewhat anxious in the days leading up to a race, this race lead-up was particularly bad because for the first time I was racing with specific time goals my coach thought I should be able to achieve.  Though the goals were based on what she had observed in my training, and though she presented them to me in the gentlest, most non-threatening way, I was still terrified I would fail.

So what did I do to get through it, and what did I learn from the experience?  

1) Write down the things you’ve gained from this block of training, no matter the outcome of your race

When I reflected on the block of training preceding the race, I realized there were many things I had gained that would be there whether or not the race went well.  So I decided to write them down.  This was my list:

1)    I’m successfully working with a new coach and I’ve gained fitness.

2)    I had some potential injuries come up during training, but I handled them well and they didn’t amount to anything.

3)    I’ve had lots of chances to run fast during practice, which I’ve been waiting to do for several years, and though sometimes it’s painful, most of the time it’s awesome (even when painful).

4)    Two quality workouts and a long run each week for the past 6 weeks!!!

I kept the list with me in my purse, and every time I started to feel anxious about the race I pulled it out and looked at it.  It was so comforting to see that in training for this race I had accomplished some other significant things that would contribute to the big picture of my development as a runner, regardless of how things turned out in this specific race.

2) Come up with a race plan and talk it through with a coach, mentor, running friend or partner.  Take the guesswork out of it.

A few days before the race I met with my coach for a strategy session.  I was able to tell her how nervous I was, and we talked over the reasons why.  Then we came up with a specific plan on how I was to prepare for and run the race: Forty-five minutes before the start, I would go for a slow 20 minute jog with 5 strides, then I would take off my warm-up clothing, make sure my racing flats were double knotted with the laces tucked in, and do some dynamic stretches.  Then I would visit the Porta-Potty, then report to the starting line 10 minutes before the start of the race. At the gun, I would control the start by running the first 1.5 miles at a 6:36/mile pace, and then at the halfway point I would either try to maintain that pace or, if I felt good, run faster.

When I got home I looked at the course map on-line.  I figured out where the halfway point was so during the race I would know exactly where I needed to decide whether or not I could pick up my pace.  Knowing exactly what I would do on race day was such a huge load off my mind, as was admitting to the reasons I was anxious about the race.  Though it was helpful to talk these things over with the person who directs my training, if you don’t have a coach, going over things with a friend, running partner or family member could also be a great option.

3) Do a dry run.

If your race has number pick-up available in the days before the race, and if the pick-up location is close to the course you will run and you can get there easily, I highly recommend using this as a dry run for getting to and situating yourself at the race.  If you can, you might consider doing a dry run anyway, even if there isn’t an early number pick-up.  On the day before the race, I drove across the Charles River to number pick-up, which was located at a restaurant right by the starting line of my race.  Not only did I familiarize myself with the route I would take to get there on race morning, I found the designated runner parking area and also walked by where the starting line would be.  On the way home, I drove by the street I had marked as my halfway point when viewing the course on-line earlier in the week.  Come race morning, I knew exactly where to go, where to park, and where my landmarks were during the race.  All potential stressors that were alleviated by my dry run the day before.

4) Remember, this is fun!  Find the joy in the situation.

I came across a great article on this subject in Running Times and reading it helped me a lot.  In it, a formerly competitive runner, past his prime but coming back to racing, faces his fears about performing at a different level than his younger, speedier self in an upcoming race.  There are a number of useful pearls about handling the mental battle of pre-race anxiety in the article, but the one that resonated the most with me was this: the runner recalls the joy he felt running as a child, and is able to recapture this feeling while competing in his race, ultimately surpassing his performance expectations.  I thought of this as I lined up at the starting line, and right before the gun went off I repeated to myself a quote in the same vein from Coach Jay Johnson: “Run from a place of joy.”  We should always do this.  This is a large part of what running is about.

5) There’s always another race.

While I didn’t reach my goals for this particular race, I learned a lot and enjoyed the process.

So, after all of that, what was the outcome of my race?  Actually…it didn’t go so great.  I screwed up the pacing in the middle, didn’t push myself as hard as I could have later, and missed all my time goals, even the conservative C goal that seemed like a sure thing.  And guess what?  Nothing awful happened.  The exact thing I was worried about – that I would fail to meet my goals – came to fruition, and the sky did not fall.  My coach wasn’t disappointed in me; in fact, she told me she was proud of me for sticking to our plan for the first mile (I ran 6:37) and not going out too fast, something I’d had trouble with in my previous 5K race and in some of my workouts in practice.  And within a week we had picked another 5K race to aim for and a new plan of attack, formulated on what we had learned from this race.  I’ll likely be a bundle of nerves again, but for sure I’ll use some of the strategies above, and maybe some others recommended by you!

What do you do to quell your nerves before a race? 


Mom of three kiddos and a black lab, running enthusiast, sports-med-doctor-in-training. I love the science and sport of running and all things related.

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1 comment

  1. I realized that I deal with it by cutting things so close race morning, I don’t have time to get anxious! In the days effort, I can usually shut it down by telling myself that I can always walk. Not sure that’s the right message though… 🙂