Racing Superstitions: What’s Luck Got to Do with It?

Four Leaf Clover
Will a four leaf clover help you have a good race? (Photo credit: Jim Rees)

Luck. Juju. Magic. We runners tend to be a ritualistic bunch. Chances are that your race day essentials include not only safety pins and Bodyglide, but some kind of lucky charm, whether it’s a part of your outfit, a particular pre-race tradition or just a talisman you have on hand. A little pre-race superstition never hurt anyone, right?

Sassafras and I have teamed up this week to discuss the use of pre-race superstitions. We thought it might be fitting seeing that we are the last of the Saltys to be racing a marathon or half marathon this season. More than likely, we will be sure to complete our pre-race rituals or bring our little lucky charms. But what if something happens race morning that throws a routine or ritual off? What happens if you leave your little charm at home?

Sassy's prerace routine
Sassy’s pre-race prep from a race in June – margherita pizza and freshly painted nails.

I, Sassy, have race day rituals that have varied over the years, but no matter what they are, I don’t mess with them. My running buddies know that if they call me the night before I race and I say I’m painting my nails, that they’d better keep it short. I plan my race day manis well in advance, and the fresher, the better. I even went to the trouble back in January of looking up TSA regulations and flying with nail polish in my carry on. Likewise, I always listen to Justin Timberlake in my car en route to the race.

120 Clif Bars
Ginger needs her race day Clif Bars. This stash should last her a while! (Photo credit: naotoj)

As for myself, Ginger, my pre-race routines bordering on superstitions mainly involve food and bathrooms. If I’m without a Chocolate Powerbar or Clif Bar, I might have an early morning meltdown. And similar to Mark Mathews, I must have the opportunity for a pre-race poop. Although unlike Mark, I don’t mind if it’s in the porta john or even the woods. Desperate times call for desperate measures, right?

According to a poll, 22% of respondents have a lucky race routine, charm or ritual. Pro runners have their race day superstitions, too. According to an interview with RunnerDude, Kara Goucher used to have lucky hair barrettes, while Shalane Flanagan likes to have a bib number with an “8” in it.  Sassafras was happy to read in a recent issue of Women’s Running that Olympian Molly Huddle shares her nail painting ritual. And reigning 400-meter Olympic gold medalist Sanya Richards-Ross wears a bullet necklace. Once she didn’t wear it and came in third at the NCAA Championships. She vowed never to skip wearing it again.

So where is the line drawn when a superstition or pre race routine turns into a problem? Well, we can ask ourselves one important question: Is this good luck charm or routine interfering with the rest of our race morning? Much like a mental health counselor would assess how much a stressor is interfering with everyday life, we must make an effort to assess if this superstition is creating more anxiety than necessary.  Yes, a little anxiety is normal and even beneficial. But if you find yourself heading into obsession compulsion territory, there may be a problem. What does obsession compulsion territory look like? Well if your routine involves putting on and taking off your socks twenty times on each side before lacing up, you might be creating more anxiety than good. If something like this works for you, better yet! But if it has to be done a certain way and started over if done incorrectly, well, then Houston, we may have a problem.

When it comes time for your next race, be sure to think about all that you have put into having a good race. It likely looks like a balance of training, cross training and rest as well as healthy eating and plenty of sleep. Don’t forget about all of that mental training either! Realistically, we all know it’s not a lucky sports bra that makes the difference between a great race and an okay one, right? So the next time you find yourself with an empty bottle of nail polish or a missing Clif Bar on the day of the race, don’t freak! Part of being a runner is learning how to adapt and be flexible. Who knows, the added anxiety may even create some much needed adrenaline to run a new personal best!

Do you have any race day luck charms? Why do you think runners rely on such superstitions?


This post originally ran on October 16, 2012.

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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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  1. If I spot a penny on my warm-up it goes in my pocket or shoe! My weird superstitions tend to match whatever neurosis I’m suffering from around the time of the race. The more nervous I am the more weird things I find myself doing or thinking. For instance, I’ll feel a sense of doom if I pass a dead animal on my warm-up or feel super pumped if my favorite song just happens to come on the radio on my drive to the race. I think it’s a normal reaction to the parts of the racing experience we can’t control, but it’s important not to remember how much is in your control and that you do have A LOT of power to control the experience. The race result is not pre-ordained!

  2. Hey! thanks for the shout-out! You had me at “pre-race superstition” but cool to see what you wrote. No woods for me. I’m as hairy as a bear but don’t shit in the woods. But the woods may be more comforting than a port-a-potty with 50 people waiting, so maybe I’ll find a nice tree on Staten Island.

    I’m sure it’s all a false sense of control and security in things known to us, or some sort of psychological phenomenon, but heck yeah, pre-race superstitions are ripe for me. I always make the sign of the cross after the anthem is played in the chute. I”m not especially religious but plenty spiritual, and this seems to prepare me for the harrowing experience.

    I also feel like its good luck and good karma to take water from the youngest volunteer at the aid stations. This does mean bending down to grab the water at times, but it’s worth it. I can feel new energy every time I do.

    Oh yeah, and I never leave the hat on the bed.

    Great post.

  3. Love this! I have mine too: must eat a banana and vanilla (go figure) yogurt 2.5 hours before start time, vanilla Gu 15 mins before. A pre-race poop means a good race. Bad warm-up usually means good race for me and vice versa. I always have to wear sunglasses too, even if it’s not sunny. Good luck with your upcoming races!

  4. This is a fun post! But I personally think there is a big distinction between essential pre-race preparation (e.g. taking in appropriate pre-race food, going to the bathroom, liberal application of Body Glide) and superstition. If you don’t do the necessary pre-race prep, you can (and likely will) botch your race. Superstitions are the extra things that aren’t really necessary to optimal performance, but that you do anyway because you are hoping it will give you that extra positive juju. The last one I did was have the race pasta feed the night before the race. It was cold, kind of gross and over-priced. There are a billion places in Chicago I could have gotten dinner (including pasta), but my best races have come after imbibing in the host pasta feed. I did it because I thought it would give me good luck. And it did! 🙂

  5. I have a pre-race ‘routine’ as such but I woudn’t say they’re superstitions. Quite the opposite, I’ve gone out my way to NOT have lucky anythings as I think a) it’s rubbish and b) it would be detrimental! However I do have my routines….I like painted nails too, I like a new playlist and I ALWAYS pop two imodium as soon as I know I’ve done as much as I’m going to do. My only recreational drug use 😉 Having time to poo is pretty crucial!

    Good luck with your races, they’re going to be fantastic!!!