There are negative impacts of stress and anxiety on our overall health. We all have some levels of stress and anxiety in our life, and those levels ramp up and down all the time based on what we have going on in our life on a day-to-day basis.
In this article, I'm going to dial in specifically on the pre-race jitters and anxiety that often pop up during race week or right before your race.
I'm going to help you dial in on some of the positive aspects of race distress like excitement and adrenaline, and how to channel this type of stress to your advantage.
Causes of Pre-Race Anxiety and Jitters
So what causes pre-race jitters in the first place?
I mean, we all know what causes work stress or family stress, and we use running and other exercises as a form of stress relief from time to time.
But what causes this pre-race anxiousness in the first place?
Let’s start with situational induced anxiousness.
We all have various levels of stress and anxiousness in our life, and we all have various ways that we've learned to deal with this in our past. Usually, we balance stress with periods of time where we can do more self-care activities.
We escape from the day-to-day stress long enough to help decompress our minds and fill our tank back up. For many of us, these things like going out to a movie, taking a break, taking a vacation, going to the gym, going for a run, or taking a quick walk.
All of these things help us deal in some ways with our stress, but then certain things pop up from time to time that put us right back in that stressful situation - a trigger of some sort.
And all life, we're going to have to deal with this. It just never goes away, unfortunately. We have to look for health-focused ways to deal with stress and take care of our well-being.
Race-Related Stress and Impostor Phenomenon
But when it comes to a race or some other important event, our life can take a relatively low-stress time, and things like pre-race jitters and anxiety and nervousness all flare-up. In other words, the race itself can actually be a trigger.
Let me give you an example.
So let's say you've been training the last four months for your first half marathon. Then the days leading up to the race, you sense a mix of excitement, but also a little bit of anxiousness that kind of comes in:
“Am I ready? Did I train as well as I could have?”
I got sick one week before the race, the last few weeks I've also been busy at work.
I lost a few days of running, so this anxiety and jitters continued throughout the week. The night before the race, you might find yourself wide awake and not able to get to sleep because you're so excited.
You're nervous about the next day, but eventually, you fall asleep and in a blink of an eye, the alarm clock goes off. You drive to the race, head over to the crowds in line up. Now you're anxiously awaiting the start of the race. You're standing there, you can hear the beat of the music. They may be playing Thunderstruck to get you all excited and motivated. You feel that your heart rate starts to go up and you get that anxiousness, the feeling, and the adrenaline starts to be pumping as the crowd is building. There's a lot of excitement. There's energy flowing around you. Then the race director kicks off the race and off you go.
But the cool thing that within a couple of minutes, all that feeling of anxiousness and nervousness just goes away.
Once you start running, you're back to normal, so you might be wondering, well, what's wrong with that? That's part of the adrenaline rush before a race.
And actually, there's not a lot wrong with it, unless this anxiety and nerves are getting you and wearing you down in those days leading up to the race. So the first thing you need to determine is when you're in that situation, whether you’re dealing with excitement or are you really dealing with something that's more true nerves and anxiousness.
6 Ways to Overcome Pre-Race Anxiety
So what are some things that we can do to calm pre-race anxiety and stay confident?
1. Deep Breathing
Well, the first thought that pops in your head might be:
It's OK. Take a deep breath, calm down. There's no need to be nervous. Deep breathing is often a go-to strategy when it comes to dealing with stress.
In some cases that may work. In fact, in my experience, deep breathing is something that I've had to employ.
Also, in my experience, deep breathing is usually temporary. We're only taking a minute to have a break and try to slow down that hormone release that's flooding through our system. It's the same hormone release that we sometimes get when we get in that fight-or-flight mode when something scares us or we get that sense that we need to either ‘flight’ or ‘fight’. It's a very instinctive feeling that's embedded in each of us. And the same thing happens when we have stress.
But when it comes to deep breathing, I sometimes have to force myself to stop reacting to a situation like when I feel my emotions rising and my anger is boiling up. For a few minutes, I breathe deeply and calm down just so I can think about it for a minute without reacting. It's something, at least for me, that's easier said than done.
Note that deep breathing is just the first step. I'm going to propose a couple of other approaches that you can try on to overcome pre-race anxiety if the deep breathing exercise doesn't work for you.
2. Reappraising Pre-Race Anxiety as Excitement
So back in 2014, a Harvard Business School study compared two very different ways of handling stress. In the study, participants were asked to either deliver a speech or compete in a karaoke competition. Those were things that were very anxious or things that created a lot of nervous energy, and they were event-driven types of stress. It isn't the long-running stress or maybe being in a job you don't like. It was more of you had to prepare for an event, whether it was a speech or karaoke or a race, it doesn't really matter.
Before you sing or give a speech, you get nervous and anxious and you start feeling the adrenaline.
In this study, they took each group and broke it into two separate groups:
Then one group from ‘karaoke people’ and one group of ‘speech people’ were told:
“It's OK, try to calm down”.
And they would tell them that message right before they went off to do the competition or to give the speech.
The other groups would be told that what they were feeling was simply excitement. They were told to embrace the nervous energy.
So basically, each group had these two groups approaching the problem in two different ways to deal with their nervousness and anxiety before their event. And guess which one worked out?
Surprisingly, trying to calm down didn't reduce participants' anxiety. It just highlighted the gap between how people felt, how they thought they should be feeling.
But in contrast, those who tried to channel their anxiety into excitement felt more confident and prepared. They gave a better speech and sang on key more often.
There was less of that nervous talk and energy when they channeled that energy.
This study is one of many that show that there are other ways of managing stress, not just trying to simply relax.
And yet most of us, fitness professionals, trainers, yoga instructors, and running coaches, we continue to emphasize relaxation as the primary defense against stress.
In fact, before this Harvard researcher ran her study, she asked a completely separate group to predict which strategy for pre-performance anxiety would work best. And 91% of people thought that the try-to-calm-down approach would be the one that wins.
3. Visualize and Harness the Energy of Stress
We're told to take a deep breath, relax, calm down, but what do we get from this?
Well, when we can't calm down, we can harness the energy of stress to actually work to our advantage. We can use it to fuel peak performance. So when we're stuck in a difficult situation, we can actually choose to learn from the experience and apply that to future experiences as well.
So here's how we do that. At least with this strategy, we can harness the energy of stress. So if we think about this, how would you feel about jumping out of an airplane?
I know for me personally, I'd probably be petrified. But maybe you have done it and you think that it would be a lot of fun. So if this was true, how do you think that our stress responses to skydiving would differ between me and you? I'm terrified. I'm stressed, but you're like, ‘Let's go’.
Studies have actually compared the physiological responses of terrified first-time skydivers to experienced skydivers.
There was a study by Hare, Wetherall, and Smith that showed that there is no difference. Stress hormones soared no matter how experienced a jumper was. Heart rates went up whether the person was scared or whether they were thrilled.
Either way, the nervous systems of skydivers showed the same pattern of how they reacted, both a first-time and experienced skydivers. In fact, one researcher went on to argue that fight or flight is completely indistinguishable from 'excite and delight'.
So what we're getting from this is that at a physiological level, there wasn't much difference between a fear-based response and a feel-good adrenaline rush. Both flooded the body and brain with energy to help you deal with that challenge.
And it turns out that when you choose this positive interpretation of this stress from something that you were fearful and anxious up to something that is positive and full of excitement, it actually creates a performance boost.
The Wrong Approach: If to view stress as more debilitating, we get anxious and we get inside our own head sometimes and we think of all the things that could possibly go wrong.
The Right Approach: Professional athletes or accomplished athletes actually tend to do the opposite. They look at this as not a debilitating stress, but they view it as the energy that they then use to fuel them in a performance.
In fact, I've heard on many documentaries when they interview rock stars or musicians or people who have to get out and perform in front of people that even though they've done it many, many times, they still get that knots in their stomach and they still get that nervousness before the performance. And one of the things that they say is that they use that to make sure that they don't go into a performance overconfident.
And yet at the same time, they use that to drive their performance and to go out and have the best show that they can have every single night, even though they're still nervous each and every time they perform.
So they don't see stress as a barrier to performance and they don't view anxiety as a signal that they're going to choke. They actually take that and they focus on using relaxation techniques to help calm the nerves.
They use it as a way to help them visualize and prepare and do self-talk to kind of motivate them and drive off that energy as opposed to using it as something as negative energy.
When something you care about is at stake and you spend those months and weeks preparing for a race, it's OK to be stressed. And it's really about how we take a more positive spin and harness that energy of nervousness and that stress, anxiousness and find ways to help us succeed off that because it is producing adrenaline, which is then allowing us to perform better.
It's just when we worry about it over several days leading up to the race, adrenaline boost that we get starts causing exhaustion and fatigue as the hormones then flood in to replace the adrenaline.
4. Think of a Race as a Way of Mental Training
Another way you can use this to your advantage is thinking about the fear of going into a race unprepared. So you may think of things like:
"Well, I'm going to fizzle out later. It's going to be a struggle. I'm going to be breathing harder or I'm going to be not as comfortable as I want to be".
And you can take this into even regular runs where we're starting to change our attitude from one of ‘I have to do this’ to ‘I get to do this’. Is that when you feel your heart pounding, that's the sensation of your heart getting stronger, when you're breathing faster or breathing harder, that's good because you're taking extra oxygen and fuel into your body, which is then going to help you become better as you do more of it.
And as we start to normalize these symptoms, such as sweating or a pounding heart, we're actually allowing ourselves to think that we're not suffering, but that we're training. We're training a fitness mindset.
5. Have Trust in Your Training
Bad race can happen and that’s OK, here is a small fact:
A lion goes out to hunt and fails 80% of the time. They go out to hunt, they fail. Not that we're lions, but it's unrealistic to think that every single race we're going to perform the way we wanted to perform.
We want to set ourselves up in situations where we can perform the best we can in those situations, but we can't control a lot of the stuff that we do, no matter how good our training was.
And if our training isn't perfect, we have to look at it from the perspective of it's the best it could be with what I had at the time. So going into a race or a run, we have to look into it and say: “You know what, it's going to be OK, we're going to be fine”. We have to have trust in our training.
The other thing I want to mention is if you look back at times where things just didn't go well, like if you look back to the times that you had the most adversity in your life, you were facing something that was uncomfortable, and most likely you came out the other side more resilient.
You can strengthen your resilience by thinking about times that you did have these stressful situations and how it contributed to your personal growth. Almost every bad situation comes out with something that makes you stronger.
You can also go back and think from your training perspective, look at what you're doing right before you go into a race week.
20 weeks before, you may have only been able to run three or four miles consistently. Now you're getting ready to walk into a marathon where you're going to run 26 miles. You ran probably 20 or 22 for your longest run.
But you couldn't do that 20 weeks ago, so that’s why you need to have trust in your training.
6. Supporting Other Runners and Running on Behalf the Loved Ones
Finally, the last thing that is just another alternative to the ones we've been talking about is to make it something that's bigger than yourself.
Here is the situation:
Imagine two people in a hospital waiting room, both people were waiting for something. They're worried about what might happen when the doctor walks out from behind closed doors. One reaches out to the other and holds the other one's hand, hoping to comfort her and offer compassion.
Which of the two do you think actually will experience the greatest stress release?
Both are going to likely feel better, but studies have shown that the person who offered compassion will get the biggest benefit. Neuroscientists have actually studied what happens in the brain when you're giving social support or you're helping somebody else. The person giving support reduces stress significantly more than the person receiving the support.
In fact, neuroscientists have actually found that you don't even have to actually be the person giving out. You don't have to actually even give the support, you just need to be able to feel or think that you're giving somebody support.
So things like running on behalf of somebody else who can't run, running in memory of somebody who is no longer with us can also help boost your confidence and overcome the pre-race anxiety.
I encourage you to take on the growth mindset. And then when coming up with the creative ways of how to deal with the stress and the anxiety, we can start with:
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