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Overcoming "In-Race" Anxiety

Last week I discussed pre-race anxiety: what causes it and what you can do about it. The best way to combat pre-race anxiety is to have a plan and then remain flexible –– stuff happens. Channel your adrenaline, trust your training, and get to the starting line in a good frame of mind.  

What happens, however, when the nerves hit DURING the race? This is a common problem that affects everyone from elite runners to the person who does the occasional 5K. Therefore, it’s worth thinking about how we get body and mind on the same page during a race.

People who race a lot –– particularly professional runners –– have plenty of experience with bad days and can offer the rest of us a good example of resilient thinking during a performance. If their race is not going according to plan, they don’t waste time in the moment stewing about not winning the race. Instead, they quickly decide if a top ten finish is possible and start to execute to make that happen. There are times when the best they can do is simply to hang tough and finish when they really just want to drop out. Cultivating strategic thinking, mental toughness, and a tolerance for physical discomfort will take you far in this sport.

This is what third place can look like…sometimes third place is a win.

Have a Variety of Race Goals

Therefore, the primary way to address anxiety while racing is to have a variety of goals. Just as successful runners of all ability levels set different goals to quell pre-race anxiety, so to do they set a range of performance goals during the race. If, for example, you find yourself struggling early in a race, you can relieve some pressure by scaling back. Maybe today is not the day for your all-time PR at the distance. What’s your first backup goal? Getting under a certain time for the course? Placing in your age group? Working on the hills? Kicking it in at the finish? Have a range of goals so you are sure to walk away with something learned and some enjoyment

If your race overall is not going well, don’t despair. Turn your day into a race within a race: focus on the runner ahead of you and catch her. If you are successful, proceed to the next runner. Giving yourself little objectives to accomplish within a race is a great way to maintain concentration, particularly during longer races. As the tempo lags and everyone is slowing down, you can be the one to gain ground and improve your overall standing.

If you find yourself on the course completely alone, it will be hard to key off someone and pick them off. Instead of feeling dejected, however, I suggest consciously trying to work on form. You usually can pick up seconds of time by minor conscious improvements in your arm swing, foot strike, or heel flick. Alternately, you can transform the race into a timed speed workout with specific mile goals. Attack the uphills, but take it easy on the downhills. If you’re still building your endurance, a good goal might be to complete the distance without walking, or walking less than you did last time out. This kind of fundamental work pays off in the long run and might ultimately be more important than overemphasizing any one result.

It is easy, however, to let the body get the best of the mind. To paraphrase Yogi Berra, 90% of running is mental but the other half is physical. Fatigue and other bodily stressors also have to be considered. (Speaking from personal experience, I’ve had some races where my goal shifted from “get a PR” to “don’t throw up at the finish line.”) What do you do when your body is rebelling and taking your brain along for the ride?

This seldom feels...                                         Like this

Part of racing is learning how to embrace discomfort. Get through a low point and your race is sure to improve. Everyone feels fatigue and part of training regularly is to learn to think clearly even in moments of physical stress. Racing is difficult and you came to the line to test your limits; when fatigue-related anxiety hits, you can and should remind yourself that what you’re feeling is normal and temporary. If, however, you are losing ground and the low feels like more of a burden than usual, you might need to alter your goals and hit your backup plan.

Yet, if you suspect that the pain you are experiencing is from an injury rather than from hard effort, it is time to slow down, assess, and if need be, call it quits. I’m not a big fan of gutting it out through an injury. If you stop, you can salvage months of training and be ready to run another day. Racing through an injury can make things a whole lot worse and potentially delay your next race for months. Listen to your body.

Stay Positive

Races are marked by highs and lows. A low can be discouraging, but don’t let it sabotage your race. Stay in the moment and make sure that you give yourself a fighting chance by working through the lows. Six-time Ironman triathlon champion Dave Scott repeated, “Do what I can do in this moment,” throughout his races. Save post mortems for after the race.

Once again, in running as in life: don’t let your inner critic spoil your fun.

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  • Marcia Cooper

    Great suggestions for overcoming pre-race (9/21/15 blog) and in-race anxiety (10/8/15 blog). Thank you John!

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