Battling the Race Day Nerves — Use the Nerves to Your Advantage

Sunday again already, eh? Well, we are approaching the ‘GO TIME’ for races here; whether it’s the high schoolers gearing up and going through all the sectional/regional races, the college athletes doing the same, the road racers continually make the circuit, and of course the marathons. We have NYC Marathon fast approaching, other ones going on all around the world, and then come January the US Olympic Trials…exciting stuff!

Though, whether you are racing in a huge meet or a low-key fun run, there is something special about putting on that race bib. Even if you are going into a race using it more as a workout or a tune-up, you still get that little buzz right before that gun goes off.
cross country girl runner
Races wake up that competitive beast just a little more…if tough workouts are just poking it with a stick than having a gun go off is like kicking him in the mouth. I’ve talked about how people have different perspectives on races: for some they just want to survive, others don’t care a lick about time and are all about the fun, and then there are those who are out for time and want to push themselves to their absolute limits.

Any and all of those goals are valid and great; but if you do fall into that last category and each of these races are upping the ante: read as you need to hit a certain qualifying mark, place as high as possible to make it to the next round, and there is a lot on the line, you CAN’T let the nerves get the better of you.

You want that buzz of adrenaline, the prick of your hairs as you crouch at the line, because that’s all a part of racing. But you don’t want to take it to the extreme and sabotage yourself. Don’t ‘think’ yourself out of a race.

Out-thinking it can happen even days or weeks before you start your warm-up. For whatever reason I think I was pretty good at not psyching myself out to the point where it ruined my race before it even started; I think it was because of a few things, and I’ll just share a few tips or pointers that might work for you:

* It’s just a ‘workout-plus’: the thing is, I get nervous before hard workouts too. I can’t really put into words why exactly, part of it is because I want to do well of course, part of it is that I know it will hurt but I want to test my mental toughness and see how far I can push that. I am a big believer in that being a mentally gritty and tough runner is one of the best attributes to have; I respect that probably the most in other people. How to use this for the race then: just think of this race as you would a tough workout; yes, there is more ‘on the line’ but just like in hard track sessions, go out there and give it the best you’ve got. The ‘plus’ part comes from the extra boost the excitement, adrenaline, and competition will give you; usually that will happen on it’s own and will help push you a little harder.

* Go in with multiple goals: the races I’ve been the most nervous for were the ones where I wasn’t exactly sure where my fitness was. Maybe I was coming off on an injury, perhaps I hadn’t raced for awhile; whatever the case if you haven’t built up enough workouts to gauge your level of fitness that can be daunting. In this instance, I’d suggest looking at what workouts you HAVE done, (here is where a coach helps a LOT as they can help you predict and set a goal for the race) and set a few goals. Set one for what you would consider ‘acceptable’, another a little bit higher, and then have a third that you might think is a reach but you still have to put it out there. Now, the three goals things still works even if you are in good shape; you always want to have a third goal where you really put your neck on the line and set it; even if you don’t tell anyone but yourself.

* Carry the confidence: now if you DO know you are ready to rock that race, then I’d suggest thinking back on your key workouts. The ones where everything clicked, you did well, and they are proof you are in good shape; so then when there is the point in the race where it hurts like a beast you can tell yourself, “Okay, I did such-and-such workout and that hurt way more, I CAN do this.

* Power-down, Power-up: leading up to the ‘big race’ just try to push it out of your mind with about two days to go. If you stress out too much about it, what happens is you will physically just wear yourself out. Your body will produce this hormone called, cortisol, which will, come race day, leave you wiped out. Not only that, your mind will have been stewing and could just work against you. So set your goals in advance, then tune out the days leading up…flip the brain back on when you are starting your warm-up because then it’s GO time.

* Relax: ummm, thanks for the obvious advice? Haha…no but seriously, I know we all handle nerves differently; for me I used to sort of turn into this weirdo-yabber mouth. I was the one on the line saying good luck to people or making some dorky joke; for whatever reason that helped me let off some steam by keeping it light. There is a limit of course, you don’t want to be outright rude because some racers are the opposite and like to be completely stoic, so give them their quite. I respect that everyone works in their own way; for the relaxing though, it helps to sometimes just shake out your arms because your shoulders can be up to your ears without you knowing it.

cross country boy runner

We're equal opportunity here, here's one for the guys. :)


I hope a few of these things help. Lastly, if you’re running with a team, use the camaraderie to your advantage, not your undoing. Yes, let it propell you to pick off that last person down the stretch, to really reach…but don’t let the opposite happen where you just absorb all that pressure to perform. The funny thing about it, the more you focus on ‘wanting to do well’ that is usually when you are working against yourself the most. Often times the races or times I’ve felt my best is when I wasn’t thinking about ‘wanting to do well’ but instead just letting it happen.

I’ll share a quote my mom used to always tell me when I would be nervous: “If you weren’t nervous, then I’d be worried; that means you don’t care.”

1) Best way you’ve found to channel nerves to your advantage?

2) Do you get nervous before key workouts?

3) Did you race this weekend? If so…share!

Bookmark and Share