4 Strategies to overcome a lack of racing confidence
A runner who is scared to race – sounds like an amusing anecdote one might read in a children’s book. However, if you’ve been in the sport long enough, you’ve undoubtedly had a running friend who was scared to race, or you’ve been stricken with race anxiety yourself.
Most of the time, pre race anxiety and nerves are a normal part of training and racing. Whether it be the experienced veteran nervous about running a new PR or a marathon rookie just worried about surviving the distance, nerves add excitement to a race and help add to the thrill of racing.
Unfortunately, runners can sometimes take those nerves too far and develop a paralyzing fear of racing. It could happen after a string of bad races, a long layoff due to injury, or lack of confidence in your fitness and a fear of “embarrassing” yourself. Regardless of why it might happen, when these fears take hold, pre race anxiety becomes more than just nervous energy; it can derail your performances and suck all the fun out of racing.
If the fear of racing has stricken you or a running friend, you’re not alone. It’s a common ailment that can strike even the most confident of runners. If you’re dreading your next race or find yourself consistently underperforming because of lack of confidence, here are four sure-fire remedies to get you back on track:
Use races as training runs
One of the most reliable strategies to combat underperforming at races because of nerves is to make the act of racing itself a more enjoyable experience. In essence, you want to take the pressure off yourself.
However, turning the anxiety of racing into a fun event is easier said then done. Normally, a race is a big event that requires financial and logistical sacrifices and something you target your training towards. These factors build-up the race in your mind, so much so that it often becomes a huge stress, especially if you’ve struggled in your last few races.
Therefore, you need to reprogram your mind to associate racing with stress-free, exciting and positive moments. The best way to accomplish this is to enter small, local road races and enjoy the experience of running without big crowds, waking up in your own bed, and doing a training run with hundreds of people cheering for you.
How to execute
Head to your local running store (they often have information about those lesser-known races) or look online for some low-key 5k and 10k races. Pick a few races that are easy to get to and won’t have huge crowds, and pencil them in on your training schedule. Then, swap a tempo run mid-week or add the race distance to your long run.
This won’t compromise your long-term training plan. Rather, you’ll show up at the race not worried about having to set a PR (that’s not the goal for the training run) and begin to recondition your mind to relax about the race atmosphere.
Simulate racing conditions in training
The second strategy to overcome racing demons is similar to the tactic of using races as training runs; however, it is more effective for those who don’t have numerous local race options. Simply put, you treat a few difficult workouts as race simulations.
This approach will also help you identify the root cause of your racing fears. By comparing what gives you trouble in your race simulation with what gives you trouble during an actual race, you can take steps to work harder on your weaknesses. For example, if you approach the workout worried you won’t hit the paces, you know that your race fears are caused by pressure to perform and lack of confidence. If this is the case, you can also implement the fourth strategy in this article – focus on competing, not times.
Likewise, if it’s the general atmosphere or logistics of your race simulation that has you dreading your upcoming run, you should focus on constructing a repeatable and comfortable pre race routine, as described in the next section.
How to execute
Executing the race simulation tactic is fairly easy. Simply recreate as much of the race environment as you can on your own. (As a side note, this is a good strategy for any big race, even if you’re not hesitant about racing.)
This means having your pre race dinner, waking up early and eating a healthy breakfast, and wearing the same outfit you plan to race. You can also try to simulate the course or join a local group run to simulate social pressure, if that’s an issue for you. Basically, you’re looking to recreate the entire race experience to work out the nerves.
You should pick one workout every two weeks as a race simulation. Choosing to do a race simulation more often takes some of the edge off the strategy, which reduces its effectiveness.
Develop a routine in training
If you’ve tried simulating a race in training and you found that the logistics, pre race nerves and hoopla of the race are what trigger your anxiety, work on developing a routine that helps you focus race morning. Similarly, if you’ve used races as training runs and you’ve gotten to the point where you can at least show up to the race and feel relaxed, the next step is getting to the starting line with your nerves intact and confidence high.
Building this confidence comes from developing a specific and repeatable pre race routine in training. Generally, people get nervous about the outcome of events they cannot control. Therefore, you need to keep your focus on the elements you can control, like a familiar warm-up routine. Implementing this tactic before a race wraps your mind in a comfort zone with a familiar routine that has worked many times in training and keeps you calm, cool and collected on the starting line.
How to execute
During your workouts, you should mimic the warm-up you plan to do before your big race. For example, you should run easily for 10-15 minutes, stretch any muscles that are sore or tight, do a few quick strides and be ready to go. On race day, implement this exact same routine and instead of focusing on your nerves, the other runners around you, or the general excitement surrounding the race, concentrate on executing your familiar warm-up.
Throw out the watch and stop over thinking
The final tactic to help you get over your fear of racing is the most simple to implement – get back to basics and stop over thinking your race.
The most common reason runners struggle mentally with racing is that they get too caught up in the minute details of the race, especially the ones they can’t control. Typically, the mistake of over thinking is centered around pace – hitting specific splits or running a certain goal time – but it can also be triggered by weather, course terrain, shoe decisions, or concerns about the perfect form. Interestingly, the more a runner struggles in a series of races, the more heavily they focus on these details, which usually snowballs and psyches them right out of the race.
The main objective at any race should be to give 100% effort – that’s all you can control and it’s all you should focus on. The solution seems almost too simple to be true, but it’s by far the most effective strategy if you find yourself consistently underperforming in races.
How to execute
As the famous saying goes: “simple ain’t easy”. The same principle applies to not over thinking your race and getting back to basics. At your next race (preferably a tune-up race as suggested with the first strategy) throw away the watch, ditch the heart rate monitor, concerns about weather or running with the perfect form, and just run by effort.
Focus on finding the right effort for you on that day and then maintain it from start to finish. When you finally turn off the obsession with pace, weather, and other elements you can’t control, you learn to listen to your body and focus 100% on giving your best effort, which is all that matters in the end.
If you’re dreading your next race or find yourself consistently underperforming because of lack of confidence, try implementing one, or all four, of these tactics over the next few weeks and you’ll quickly get over your mental racing hurdle.