Coach Jeff

Written by Coach Jeff


Reduce Pre-Race Nerves by Putting Your Race in Perspective

Early this year I had the chance to attend the Ivy League track championships as a spectator. It had been a while since I last watched (or competed) a “Heps” championship, but the atmosphere was still as electric as I remembered.

As I stood trackside, listening to the cheers of the crowd and recognizing the agony and nervousness of championship racing on the athlete’s faces, it brought me back to my days of competing.

I remember being so nervous that I couldn’t think of anything but the race for weeks. The days before my race were spent cooped-up in a hotel, worried about every little cramp and fretting about what I ate. I felt like the fate of the world rested on my shoulders and my performance meant everything. To be honest, it wasn’t a lot of fun.

But as I stood there as a spectator, I realized that all that nervousness as an athlete was unwarranted. In my four years as a college athlete, I had a few fantastic races and I ran downright terrible at times; yet, none of that mattered now. Friends didn’t abandon me, the world didn’t end, and I actually recall those bad races with a chuckle for how poorly they went.

I wish I had this revelation then. I think I would have enjoyed racing more and even performed better without all the self-imposed pressure.

As you might imagine, I encounter the same nervousness and fears about racing from many of the athletes I coach. On one hand, I completely sympathize with their anxiety because I remember exactly what it was like to be in their shoes. However, I also have the unique perspective of being a coach and having been through the experience before.

I want you to be able to enjoy your racing (and training). More importantly, I want you to run your best. Therefore, I want to share some advice on why getting too worked-up and focused on one race can actually be harmful to your performance.

Too many nerves can ruin your performance

Nervousness before a race can be a double edged sword. From a physiological perspective, being nervous is simply a way to describe the stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system, a system of nerves that respond to changes in our mood and our environment.

A slight stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system helps you focus and can signal your fight or flight response, releasing adrenaline and ultimately allowing you to perform at a higher level.

However, over stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system can result in some serious performance declines, including:

  1. Heart rate increases, which results in heavier breathing and an increase in perceived exertion.
  2. Metabolic activity increases, which can burn calories faster and mean you utilize energy less efficiently, resulting in poor performance during longer events like the marathon and half marathon.
  3. Cognitive ability may become over stimulated and decline, leading to lack of focus and the ability to push yourself late in the race.
  4. Falling asleep may become more difficult, which can impact recovery and your immune system.
  5. As I’ve written about before, over-nervous thoughts tend to reduce confidence and result in negative self-talk. Psychological research has demonstrated that negative thinking alone can negatively impact performance.

Take time to enjoy the journey to be consistent

While the performance decline that results in being too nervous should convince any serious runner to reexamine how they approach races, I personally believe the bigger factor is it’s impact on your enjoyment of the sport.

Becoming a good runner takes years and years of consistent mileage and solid workouts. If the thought of upcoming workouts or races gets you so nervous that these events no longer become fun, it’s going to be difficult to stay in the sport for a long time.

Moreover, unless running is your livelihood, these race experiences are supposed to be fun. While I am not suggesting performing well and setting a PR are not fun, they are only one component of what makes a race great. The energy, excitement, travel, and the camaraderie all make racing an awesome experience.

Putting the race in perspective

As you approach your goal race or you set your sights on new challenges for the next racing segment, remember to put the race in perspective. Your friends and family won’t desert you and there is almost always going to be another opportunity if the race doesn’t go as planned.

If you’ve done the training and have an executable race plan, you have everything you need for a good performance. There’s no reason to get overly anxious about the outcomes you can’t control.

By shifting your thinking, you can reduce those pre-race nerves and ultimately perform better and more consistently while enjoying the experience even more.

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