Racing Nerves: Thrilling, Addictive, Anxiety-provoking, and Potentially One of Your Greatest Assets

“Do my legs normally feel this tired before my race?” I think this is a question that has run through every runner’s head during their warm-up at some point or another. In fact, I know some runners actually take it as a good sign that their legs feel like lead…the worse they feel before the gun goes off the better they feel once they’re off.
woman running
Nerves. You can’t avoid them in or sport; or rather, if you CARE about how you run and race you can’t avoid them. All that nervous energy, the excitement, the buzz, the flood of endorphins not only ensure you care but they are the the emotions that those who race thrive on…are probably addicted to. I’ve commonly written that there is a difference between running and racing; the runners who crave those races, NEED that buzz, know exactly what I’m talking about.

I recently wrote an article featured at Competitor online: Putting Your Nerves to Good Use. Check it out there, as it has tips to channel your nerves into a positive way to elevate your performance; but, as I am one who generally isn’t ever short on words, I have a bit more to add on.

“Nerves…many seem to to think these are ‘bad’ to have. Instead, they are NECESSARY,” Jim Bauman Ph.D, Sports Psychology, I have quoted in that article. He has it dead on and went on to add, “Bottom line, this energy IS the drug of sport. Those minutes and moments before a competition are difficult to replicate in other areas of life events. As much as athletes frame this as an aversive event, it is exactly what they miss most when they leave sport.”

Again, spot on. I think when athletes regard this nervousness and energy with a sense of hesitation and anxiety, it isn’t so much the actual event they precede, but rather a competitor dreads the window of time leading up to before the gun being fired…having the actual nerves around, bringing that flurry of thoughts into their mind. They ‘dread’ it the same way they ‘dread’ the anticipation of a hard workout because they know it will hurt. The pain of exertion is a given, a constant, but a part of running, and racing, is coping with this given. Coping often means a degree of denial before the hurt and pain actually starts…we have to lie to ourselves, say it won’t be ‘that bad,’ otherwise we may talk ourselves out of actually starting.
tough runner
Racing takes that ‘dread’ and anxiety of starting to a whole other level because a lot more is at stake; the times, the places, our performance means a lot more to us than just another hard workout. We CARE more about the outcome of the event.

Usually with nerves they start to climb days (for some, even weeks) before the race…running takes a lot of training if you want to race well, so us runners have a LONG time to focus on a particular event and seasons last multiple months. So the climb starts, but the rate of that climb escalates the closer you get to the race; the anticipation gets to a point where we nearly think we will explode RIGHT before the gun goes off. Then, just before you think you can’t last a second longer…CRACK…and the nerves seem to disappear. Nerves dissipate and are replaced by ‘performance’ mode, where you focus on the actual doing.

Or at least the nerves should be pushed from your mind. But, nerves are a tricky bugger and hard to handle; that’s why they are a common source of anxiety for runners…because runners know that if NOT properly managed their nerves can be their undoing. Nerves can be a runner’s undoing or they can be one of their greatest assets…channeling those nerves positively, in a way to step up your ‘game’ after the gun goes off is a powerful tool in running and racing.

The funny thing with doing this, is that the ‘gamers’ of our sport often find it difficult to put into words the ‘hows’ of what they do. It sort of comes naturally to them without their being so cognitively aware, they don’t really know what they are doing differently, they just DO. A sports psychologist makes it their job to investigate the ‘hows’ and explain it to others. “We work on embracing this energy,” explains Bauman on his approach in working with his elite athletes, “Whenever we put ourselves on the line with performance being a key to why and what we are doing, the brain kicks in…the fear response is alive and well…we are going to run or fight.”

Nerves put athletes in a tricky spot, we have to battle nature, instincts and make sure that we don’t cross the line from the ‘fight or flight’ response and into the ‘panic’ response. “A characteristic of panic is ‘freezing’,” states Bauman.

So these nerves; there is good reason to regard them with a mix of dread and adoration. They can freeze you up, they can tie your stomach in knots, they can make you feel like you’re going to explode if the race doesn’t start NOW. Though, they also give you that buzz, make you feel alive, they make you want to jump out of your skin in a good way…and they are addictive…they are a thrill.

Racing is a thrill…CRACK.

1) Can you put into words what your nerves feel like before a race or hard workout?

2) How do you manage your nerves? Do you have a pre-race ritual that helps keep them in check?

3) If you consider yourself a ‘gamer’ can you try and explain the ‘how’ of doing that?

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22 thoughts on “Racing Nerves: Thrilling, Addictive, Anxiety-provoking, and Potentially One of Your Greatest Assets

  1. I’m definitely not a fan of that ‘lead leg’ feeling. At all! But I do like the research showing that we perform best (in anything really, not just sport) when we’re moderately anxious :) Too much is a bit too much, but too little and as you say – we have no motivation to do anything! It’s a useful thing to be reminded of, thanks :)

  2. i’ve let nerves get the best and worst of me, they’re are a tough thing to control. for me they seem to stir up a lot of emotion about my training and the path that lead me to that line, which isn’t always a good thing. funny you wrote this because yesterday i was actually just craving that feeling of anxiousness before the gun goes off where there is a pit in my stomach and my heart is racing. ready to chase that feeling down right now!

    • i LOVE it…the fire is lit baby!! i totally kno EXACTLY wat u’re talking about, and the funny/crazy thing is even when i’m just watching a distance track race and i hear the gun goes off, there is that little ping in my heart. :)

  3. I used to get the WORST nerves before swim races. My fingers would feel funny and I would bite on my cheeks. Running isn’t so bad for me — I have more fun with it than my competitive swim days! But I get butterflies in my stomach, still!

    • i sort of think that the butterflies i get just before the gun are the same as when i’m just about to take a huge rollercoaster drop! ;)

  4. I love the nerves to a degree, they are just part of what makes it an important event. Sometimes it gets too much and impacts my sleep, my bowels, my digestion, and all of that. Overall, it just makes it all more exhilarating. The more events I do, the more comfortable I get, but my first marathons I was so so freaked out. And, I have seen more than one first time marathoners crying, literally in tears, before the event started since there is so much emotional build up.

    Love what you said about lying to yourselves.

    • marathons are different i think because u literally focus SO long on one event and no matter how it goes u can’t just ‘pop’ right back to re-do like u can for the shorter ones. i mean heck, race a mile, it goes bad…get over and come back a few days later, right?? ;)

      oh man, i’m ALL about the lies to myself…funny i’m one heck of an honest person to the rest of the world, but i probably have no clue wat the truth is when i’m talking to myself. ;) jk….sorta…hehe

  5. I will say I get nerves before longer races not so much shorter distances. I was a completely different nervous right before my triathlon. I wish I could explain the way I felt but it was almost a terrible feeling. But once I got started it was ok.
    I also get really nervous when I am getting ready to teach a new class or sub for someone at the gym. People at the gym can be rough to please at times.

    • pssshhh, u tell any gym critics to stuff it cuz u kno wat u’re doing and YOU are the teacher!! ;) that said, i would be super nervous too for a tri that was my first time too!! i think any time we are diving into something totally new the nerves kick in extra….once we do it though next time isn’t so bad because we at least kno wat to expect! :)

  6. I kind of like the nerves too – because they are a part of being excited for the race! As long as I don’t start too fast, my nerves help me to stay alert and think envision what I want to accomplish, things I think help me to race better!

    • oh man…when nerves make u go out way to fast it’s the kiss of death…and we’ve ALL been there!! lol. but yea, nerves…those buggers can be scary but so addicting at the same time! ;)

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