We spend so much more time training than racing it is not a surprise that races bring anxiety. Since there are only a few key races each year, those races are laden with expectation and a certain amount of fear. It is normal to question whether you are ready to PR or reach the podium or if the day is going to go horribly awry or if you are going to feel embarrassed by a poor performance (nobody should ever feel embarrassed by a poor performance).
Yes, pre-race anxiety is a normal part of racing. I have always felt that once the pre-race jitters go away completely you aren’t truly ready to race. But, there is a distinction between the adrenaline pumping nerves that get your heart rate up just the right amount and paralyzing nervousness that ends up derailing a race.
While pre-race anxiety can come from any number of things, I think that the main problem is self-imposed pressure. The pressure that we put on ourselves to succeed can become debilitating to the point that it turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy; when you worry so much about failing, failure is often inevitable. The very thing that makes us work hard to reach our goals can also be our downfall.
In 2010 I was trying very hard to make a comeback after a terrible bike crash. I wanted to prove to myself and everyone around me that I was stronger than ever even though I was still suffering with injuries. I went to Galveston 70.3 to race against a stacked field at a time when I was clearly not ready to race. I was so nervous before the race I actually broke down in tears.
Luckily there are ways to combat the pressure cooker that we impose upon ourselves. Look, I know that changing an ingrained mindset is no easy task. To be a better athlete you need to train your mind in same manner you train your body . Decreasing self-imposed pressure has to be practiced on a daily basis and added to your training schedule like it is another workout. In that vein, I have come up with 7 things to work on, one for each day of the week, to lessen the effects of self-imposed pressure:
Worry less. It doesn’t matter how your competition performs or what other people think about how you race or if you miss your PR by minute or a mile. Don’t waste time on “what ifs”. Take care of the things that you can control, such as pacing well, good nutrition, staying healthy, making sure your equipment works. Ban from your thoughts things that you have no ability to regulate. Most importantly, don’t worry about failing. The greatest triumphs often come on the heels of epic failures.
Have confidence. One of my favorite mantras is “training doesn’t lie”. A lot of hard work goes into the preparation for a big race. Don’t forget about all of the workouts that turned you inside out or made you smile. Go back through your training log and look specifically at the key workouts that have enhanced your fitness. Racing without confidence often leads to race day mistakes.
Visualize good things happening. I hate to sound like a hokey hippie, but visualization works. Find a quiet spot, close your eyes, and imagine yourself executing the perfect race. If it is a course you are familiar with, place yourself on the course and picture yourself floating and feeling good. On an unfamiliar course, check out the course maps and elevation profiles so you have an understanding of how the course flows. Imagine yourself crossing the finish line exuberantly because you achieved your goal.
Be prepared. Shit happens when you race so you best be prepared. Make sure you have clothing options to deal with all types of weather situations. Have several nutritional plans in place in case you need more or less calories than originally calculated. If you think you need 4 gels on race day, bring 6. Be ready combat any difficulty that comes your way and contemplate how you are going to handle a race day glitch with poise rather than anger or despair.
Positive self-talk. Nothing, and I mean nothing, can ruin a race like negative thoughts. Once negative thoughts creep in, they are very hard to banish. It is imperative to come up with a phrase or mantra before race day that you will repeat in your head whenever a negative thought infiltrates. Your key word can be anything – silly, funny, uplifting – as long as it chases away the ugly thoughts.
Don’t be a perfectionist. Things can and will go wrong. It is very hard, in fact, almost impossible, to execute the flawless race. It might be a crappy transition, a swim that was too slow, you might be way behind your competitors, or your pacing could be way off. Any number of things can blemish your race. Don’t let a mistake send you into a shame cycle.
Have fun!!! Ultimately, fun is the name of the game. Racing is a privilege and we are lucky that we able to something that we enjoy so much. And, we need to take a lesson from the old golf adage “The worst days golfing are still better than the best days working.”