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Pre-Race Anxiety: Origins and Solutions

You’ve spent the summer training for the fall racing season. Your goal races are rapidly approaching and you realize that excitement is commingling with anxiety and dread. Deep breaths. This is a common affliction among runners who race. Although almost every elite runner will explain that relaxation unlocks quality performance, this is easier said than done. To conquer racing anxiety, you need to discover its source and develop some coping mechanisms.

Writer, physician, and running guru George Sheehan warned that race anxiety needed to “be minimized but not avoided. Or else you come to the starting line completely flat…The answer is enough adrenaline but not too much.” So, some nervousness before the start is a benefit, but how much is too much? If nervous energy threatens to suck the fun out of running, then you’ve crossed the line between good and bad. What can be done to achieve that perfect balance of nerves and excitement that will prime the pump for maximum performance?

Pre-Race Anxiety

Looks Like                                                   Feels Like

To successfully conquer pre-race anxiety, you must identify the source. From what I can tell from talking to others and reading the research, there are two main categories –– micro-stressors and macro-stressors. I like to think of them as “worries about parking” versus “worries about being.” Micro sources of anxiety derive from an almost limitless number of niggling worries and focus-suckers that crop up before a race. Examples include worrying about arriving in plenty of time, finding parking, being properly dressed for the conditions, being properly fueled, and training appropriately for the length of the race. Some of these concerns can also reveal larger, macro issues. (I suspect that my desire to constantly tie and retie my shoes before a race might be signaling a deeper anxiety about my training…)

Generally, however, you can address micro anxieties through simple planning. Lay out your race kit and necessary gear the night before the race. This is a great way to reduce stress on race morning. Unfamiliar with the race’s location? Print out maps or get the address for your GPS the night before. Importantly, wake up a half hour earlier. With additional time, race morning becomes a whole lot less hectic. Develop reassuring preparation, pre-race fueling, and warm-up routines that signal to your body and brain that you’ve got it all under control.

Pre-race routines themselves can become sources of stress, however, if you are unable to follow them. If traffic, for example, has delayed your arrival to the starting line, you might not be able to accomplish your regular two-mile warm-up. The happier and more effective racer learns to “go with the flow.” Maybe today’s warm-up will consist of jumping up and down on the starting line. Perhaps you forgot to get bananas for your regular pre-race breakfast. Remind yourself that a missing banana will probably not sabotage your entire race (unless you get obsessed about its absence). Focusing on pre-race routines that didn’t quite go according to plan can undermine your efforts.

Goal setting is also a good way to retain focus – provided that you remember that for each race, you should probably think about a spectrum of goals ranging from good to optimal. If you arrive at the starting line feeling great and your preparation has gone well, pursue that optimal goal of a new PR. On the other hand, if you have barely gotten to the starting line on time and your pre-race meal consisted of a half-slice of leftover pizza, you might want to start thinking of this race as a training run in which you can have a bagel and talk to your friends after it is over. Establishing reasonable goals that change depending on the conditions can remove some of the stress of racing.

Just a word of advice about the spectrum approach: don’t let fear and fatigue persuade you to drop down to “good” too quickly. You will experience tough spots in any race, no matter the distance. If you get to a race late and don’t have time to warm up, you might find yourself warming up during the first several miles of the race. You might be frustrated that you are not hitting your planned split times. You might also find that in being forced to start more slowly you have a lot more energy for the final miles and have actually managed to run negative splits and a new PR for the distance. Allow yourself to be surprised and don’t be too quick to conclude that it is not your day.

But say you’re in a race and the wheels are coming off…well, it happens. While not every race will be a PR or a peak experience, every race can be fun and can be a learning opportunity with the right mindset. When you get to the starting line with your head racing faster than your feet, call an audible and let go of your worries about the final result. Just have a timed workout with a lot of other people in spandex. Perhaps go out hard for a mile and see what happens. On hilly courses, really work on your pace on the hills. If you fear fading at the end, make this the time where you put the hammer down with a half-mile to go. Voila –– while you might not have set a PR, you will have had some practice refining your racing ability overall and that’s a good thing.

Macro sources of pre-race anxiety have more existential causes –– the relationship between running and being. George Sheehan suggested that training was “play” and racing was “sport.” When we race, we are competing against others and we are being timed and assessed. However, he also pointed out that it is more than that: we are ultimately competing against ourselves. Sheehan argued that in our consumerist leisure-addled society, the running race represented one of the last “true” uncommodified experiences. It tests one’s mettle. You can buy better gear, but you still have to move that gear down the road on your own power. After years of racing (and stressing), Sheehan wrote, “I learned the ultimate truth about competition. I had been racing against the clock, my opponents, the weather, the hills and all that. Finally I began racing against myself. And then I learned what it means to become a runner. It means there’s only one person in the race, and you are it.” Sheehan may have discovered the essential truth about racing, but he also unwittingly revealed the essential source of racing anxiety. If the race is the ultimate “true” test of oneself, what does it mean if you come up lacking? The race has become not merely a referendum of how your training is going but has, instead, transformed into a judgment of how your life is going. No pressure!

If you have taken care of the small, micro sources of pre-race anxiety and you are still feeling something other than useful excitement priming your body for the impending race, it may be that you have unwittingly tapped into some existential racing dread: will you, in fact, measure up? This is a self-inflicted wound. Trust your training and realize that you might be placing too much emphasis on the race itself. It is a test, but what is it testing, exactly? It’s probably not testing your essential character; rather, it is assessing how we are feeling and performing on a certain day at a specific time. Remember that as a runner, you’re the sum of more than one race. In fact, there are plenty of runners who find all their joy in their training and don’t see a need to race at all. You might be such a person…and if that is the case, you can dispense with the stress and aggravation of racing by simply not doing it.

If you enjoy racing, however, and still find that you suffer from too much anxiety, you might want to battle pre-race anxiety by racing more –– yes, more. Let me explain.

If you are only running goal races that you believe are providing a referendum on your training, you could be placing all your eggs in one basket. What happens, for instance, if you wake up with a cold on the day before your goal race or some micro issues conspire to undermine your warm-up routine on the day of the race? Racing more can relieve a lot of this pressure. Living in the Capital Region means that there’s a race every weekend. If you miss this one, you can test yourself again in a few weeks. Racing more will get you more experience and allow you to develop an accurate (as opposed to fear-and-fatigue driven) sense of how things are going within a race.

In conclusion, remember that pre-race anxiety comes from micro and macro sources. The micro logistics of getting to the race on time and having enough time to adequately warm-up can conspire to interfere with your preparation and enjoyment of the race. The best way to deal with this stress is to give yourself more time and plan, trusting your own resourcefulness to overcome minor obstacles if things don’t go to plan. Moreover, keep things in perspective –– it’s only a race, not a referendum on your worth as a person. There’s going to other days, so don’t let your anxieties rob you of the beauty and the joy of this one.

Running with joy…no one appears to do it better.
How do you deal with pre-race anxiety? Do you have any unique methods or insights that other runners will find effective? We would love to hear from you. Please tell us about them in the comments.

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