Some anxiety is a normal part of any competition, but what happens when pre-race jitters are keeping you from reaching your potential or making this sport no longer enjoyable? No one wants to see all of their hard work during training go to waste, but crippling anxiety before a race will make reaching your full potential nearly impossible. For those that continue to struggle with pre-race jitters, here is a look at exactly why this nervousness sets in just before a race, how it affects runners, and what can be done to lessen the symptoms of anxiety and get back to enjoying this sport.
Why the Anxiety?
Countless studies have been conducted on runners and this sport has been shown to provide enthusiasts with a wide variety of benefits. This includes studies from the Mental Health Foundation that shows long-term runners to have less anxiety, better sleep, and more energy than the average individual. But what happens when your favorite sport actually becomes a catalyst for anxiety just before the race? Jitters take place for a wide variety of reasons, but you may be surprised what is triggering these fears just before a race.
The primary cause of anxiety is a fear of disappointing oneself or those close to them. Runners often have a compulsion to do as well as they can in a race to validate all of the hard work that they have put into their training. They may also want to prove to their coach, those that they run with, family, friends, or coworkers just how much they have improved over time. Others can have anxiety due to the competition with other runners and a hope that they do not embarrass themselves. Past issues such as a string of bad races or a chronic injury could also lessen one’s confidence and increase their risk of crippling anxiety in the days and hours leading up to a race.
Side Effects of Pre-Race Jitters
Whether it is jitters leading into a race or panic just before public speaking, anxiety is going to have a number of affects on the body and mind. Most runners will find that their heart rate increases dramatically and they begin to perspire heavily. Others will experience a surge of adrenaline which can lead to shakiness, shortness of breath, nauseousness and dizziness. While mild anxiety has been shown to improve performance, when it comes to pre-race jitters, this can be too much of a good thing. Runners who cannot get their anxiety under control will quickly diminish their ability to perform well. Spikes in adrenaline will lead to a crash in energy during the race while shortness of breath and a racing pulse will decrease the amount of oxygen flowing to the brain and muscles. As performance declines, runners may become even more anxious which will further exacerbate the problem.
Beating Performance Anxiety
Anxiety is a complex emotion with a wide variety of physical side effects, and this means that there is no single answer that is right for every runner. You may find that a handful of mental techniques work perfectly while your running partner may need to alter their race-day rituals. One of the most effective tips is to push the race out of one’s mind until just before taking that first step. Runners should make all of the logistical plans as far ahead of time as possible. You can also organize a few backup plans if any issues arise, and then forget about all of the traveling or financial logistics of the race completely. Arriving at the starting line hours in advance or worrying that one might hit traffic on the way to a race is a surefire way to induce anxiety.
Runners also want to work on a pre-race ritual that becomes second-nature and helps to level out their energy. A great way to perfect a pre-race ritual is to enter into smaller local races and improve on one’s habits just before running. This may include a light jog, listening to music, meditating in the car beforehand, quietly making a pre-race meal, or chatting with a racing partner about non-race topics. Whatever the ritual is, you should have it perfected well before any big races are on the horizon. In addition to these rituals, if you have anxiety about races you may also want to consider visualization, a technique that is used by countless professional athletes. A few weeks or months before your race, you should sit down and visualize the race from start to finish. This includes what you will be wearing, the route, the weather, people around you, and any other piece of information you can think of. Visualization helps to minimize a fear of the “unknown” and allows you to focus on the challenge ahead of you.
Overcome Your Pre-Race Jitters
Anxiety can often make this amazing sport completely unenjoyable when it comes time to race, but no one should accept overwhelming nervousness as a simple fact of competition. If you have experienced anxiety in previous races, what methods did you use to overcome your fears and once again enjoy the sport that you love?