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5 Tips to Deter your Pre-Race Jitters

Ashley Heller laying in a field at a race course Photo provided by Ashley Heller

Do you ever get so nervous before a race or hard workout that you feel like you might throw up? Or that you might pee right in your pants? Or get so nervous that the pressure on the back of your eyes begins to build and you think you might just break down and cry? Or some combination of those? SO DO I!

The good news is that a lot of the pressure that we feel is actually the stress of our own expectations of ourselves put on us by, well, ourselves. We have our own expectations to perform, to not waste an opportunity, to put all of our hard work and efforts building up to this moment to the test and we don’t want to squander that. So far, this explanation is just making it worse isn’t it? The good news is many people feel this way and sometimes a simple reminder that you’re not the only one can help relieve this burden. If that isn’t enough, here are some of my go to tips and tricks for dealing with unwarranted anxiety and pressure before hard workout sessions and races.

Tip #1: Meditation

While sometimes a bit taboo the idea of meditation isn’t just sitting with your legs crossed making a low throaty rumble while looking like Buddha. The idea of meditation is to practice mindfulness by focusing on a specific topic to train awareness and bring out an emotional calm. For me this can look like a simple 5-minute session of focusing on how my body feels. Not analyzing anything, just making observations in order to shut out all the surrounding noise. I often do this first thing in the morning on race day. This helps me quiet my mind and focus on simple tasks that get me to the start line. I’m telling you. Mastering this skill is a game changer.

Tip #2: “Chimp Purge”

I would love to claim this term but it is actually from a psychology book (that I highly recommend. The Brave Athlete: Calm the F*ck Down and Rise to the Occasion) talking about the different parts of our brain and how they impact performance. In this case the “Chimp brain” is the part of the brain that is responsible for all of our irrational fears and anxieties that like to surface on race day. “What if I fall?” “Am I fast enough?” “What if I fail?” We all have had similar thoughts at some point when it comes to performance. One thing I have found is letting all these thoughts spill out, either verbally or on paper can relieve this ‘Chimp’ and then our rational side of the brain takes a second to reframe all of these crazy thoughts and justify them (or identify how absurdly crazy they are). I do this the day before a race as well as on race day and it’s actually quite liberating. It’s like letting all the crazy anxiety demons out and they are NOT invited back in.

Tip #3: Breathing Exercises

The sympathetic nervous system is the part of the nervous system that initiates our fight or flight response. This also happens on race day. The body is trying to rise to the occasion and perform at its highest level. A few short bouts of breath work can help to relieve the sympathetic nervous system and bring that level of anxiousness down. My favorite is focusing on 4 count breath in through the nose and exhale through the mouth for 3 counts. Repeat 4x. This is an especially great tool when waiting for the gun to go off.

Tip #4: Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Also known as PMR, this tool is a commonly used stress management technique for relieving anxiety and stress. Hello race morning! The idea is progressive tightening of a muscle group followed immediately by relaxation of that same muscle group while releasing the tension in that area of the body. Ideally, we start at the top and work our way down through the body. Many of us carry stress in our shoulders, upper back and neck which is a great place to target. I tend to focus on my shoulders and hips. Hold tension and contract the muscles in the area for 5 seconds, then release and notice how good it feels.

Tip #5: Mantra

Before I start a race, I tell myself my personal mantra. This is a go to phrase or statement that helps you hone in your focus, defines your why and helps you get through hard efforts. I use the same one before hard workout efforts as well. This will look different for everyone and is often combined with one (or many) of the techniques listed above. My go to is to state my intention for the day and finish with “I’m strong, I’m at peace and I’m ready.”

Bonus Tip

… and last but certainly not least, SMILE. If you’re not having fun then you aren’t doing it right. Plus, smiling is scientifically proven to release neuropeptides to help you fight off stress, act as a pain reliever and it simply means you’re having a great time!

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