Everyone has experienced increased nervousness, often called the jitters, before a race. It’s the same anxiety that shows up prior to a big math test or that long walk down the aisle that ends with “I do.” Those anxious moments can be helpful if they prepare us for the event, but all too often the anxiety can be overwhelming. While you may not approach the starting line with a Zen-like calm, you need not be shaking in your running shoes. A few simple techniques can help to bring the pre-race jitters to manageable levels.
You’ve laid down a solid base of training miles, including some hills and sprints. The old adage “train harder than you race” certainly applies. If you know your capabilities in the heat or on hills, you can gauge how you’ll respond on race day. Likewise, if you’ve trained in cold, rain, and headwinds, you’ll know how your body will handle it.
Anxiety can be a tool to help us anticipate. Days before the event, start a checklist of things you’ll need on race day. This gives you a focus for those anxious moments. If you absolutely can’t run without a couple of Mom’s chocolate chip cookies stashed away, the list will see that you have them. Don’t wait until the night before the event. Pack them as you think of them or as soon as possible afterward.
One competitive shooter said that he prepared for a competition by mentally firing every shot and scoring it. He was able to concentrate on the essentials through visualization. Runners can do the same by previewing the course and thinking through how to run it. An elevation profile can help to anticipate the the burning muscles from lactic acid build up as well as plan for target heart rates. Intellectual games help to push aside those emotional jitters.
Set a Routine
Some competitors have a set routine prior to an event. But remember, one person’s routine is another’s obsessive compulsive disorder. Perhaps you get dressed, put on socks and running shoes in the same order before every race, and follow some special ritual. This isn’t as silly as it sounds because it’s just another way of pushing anxiety aside. Bicycle racers, for instance, don’t shave before a big time trial, insisting that it somehow saps their energy. It’s a tradition and a ritual that may provide a tiny mental edge in a tough race.
Learn to clear your mind and consciously relax. If the jitters hit and you can’t sleep, find a comfortable position and concentrate on making your muscles relax beginning with the toes. Don’t hurry. Slowly progress up your legs, concentrating on each joint and muscle group. Relax your abdomen, back, and neck in turn. Begin again at your fingertips and repeat the process.
At the event, consciously relax again after you’ve warmed up. Lose the “race face” and smile at your competition. This projects confidence.
You’re ready. What’s more important is that you know you’re ready. You may not feel that Zen-like serenity on the inside, but your competitors don’t know that, and it just may give them the jitters.