Managing Pre-Race Anxiety
Feeling nervous in the lead-up to a race is a common experience and appropriate for many athletes. After all, a race is a test in which the conditions, fellow competitors, and unpredictability will challenge the athlete.
Sports psychologists speak of ‘optimal stress” – a combination of anticipation, excitement and endeavor which indicates a challenge but is also motivating. An athlete with optimal stress is set to perform up to his or her ability, while an athlete who is either too relaxed or too stressed will perform relatively poorly.
How can you tell if your pre-race nerves are out of balance?
1. Do you feel repeatedly worried about your race?
2. Do you feel like avoiding the race altogether?
3. Are your sleep or appetite affected?
4. Is it proving difficult to calm yourself into a manageable state?
Some sense of apprehension is fair enough. If you are saying to yourself “It could be a hard race, and I might struggle, but I can try”, you’re in about the right mental state. If you are much more anxious, or having many more negative thoughts, it’s useful to have a few management strategies in order to enjoy racing, and to keep things in perspective. Here’s what to do:
Well ahead of race-day, make sure you have taken care of the practical aspects:
- Pre-register if necessary, (with a license if required);
- Confirm timely transport to and from the race including directions, leaving time, carpool plans etc;
- Check-list your bike, clothing, equipment and supplies;
- Address promptly any aspect of concern. Make a habit of early preparation, and check off your list as you deal with it.
Regarding your race: do you feel adequately trained to toe the start-line? Are you entered in an appropriate field? Have you made comparable efforts in the past? If the answers are ‘yes’ – then tell yourself “I am sufficiently prepared and ready to race” (the words may vary, but the message should be the same). This is your useful phrase, and will work even if you feel slightly unsure. Note the word ‘sufficiently’ – as long as you feel more-or-less ready to start, that’s ok. The actual flow of the race remains unpredictable, and that’s ok too.
If you feel unready, or you’re a newbie, then you can tell yourself “I’m going to give this a try, and see how it goes”. You might add, “I’ll cope.” Of course, you can address the strength and skills aspects with your coach, if needs be.
Patterns of thinking and reflection are key to anxiety management. Recall we noted that some anxiety about your race is alright: you need not be completely calm – just manageably so. Racing is exciting, and a hint of apprehension about the unknown is healthy. Practicing a mental-skills repertoire will help keep perspective, and balance a bit of nervousness with a sense of capability and confidence.
Develop daily habits of calmness. Doing meditation is called practice because you really do get better at it the more you do it. Take a few quiet moments now and then to tune in to your muscles. Release any tension you might find, and focus on your breathing: take a few nice, deep, slow breaths. Tell yourself something like “I’m ok” or “I’m fine” and really grasp how that feels. Do this routine in a calm place, or close your eyes and picture somewhere relaxing. Gentle sounds may help too. Again, really bring these calm sensations into your body and mind, and breathe into them. If your mind wanders, that’s ok. Try this exercise for a few minutes each day, even if you already feel calm! Hone your ability to create these sensations in yourself at will, whenever you want, through repeated practice.
As race-day approaches, double-check that the practical aspects are dealt with, and dial in your training and physical preparation for the race, by doing a Rest Day and Tune-Up or whatever you and your coach have agreed you should do in the days before the race.
Keep your ‘calmness’ habit flowing.
- The day before your race, have all your equipment ready, and confirm your journey and arrival-time at the venue. Follow your training and nutrition plans, and get plenty of sleep.
- On the day: aim to get to the race with time in hand. This is a balance, as you don’t want too much time to spare, so you’re waiting around (especially if it’s very cold or very hot); but you need ample opportunity to sign in, get changed and do a thorough warm-up, with maybe a course pre-ride if that’s your preference.
- In the hours between getting out of bed and heading for the start, maintain your calm style. Relax your shoulders, fingers and jaw; loosen up any tension you may find. Harness your breathing: nice and deep. Decide to employ your helpful thoughts: “I am sufficiently prepared, and ready to race”, or “I’m going to give this a try, and see how it goes”. Certainly tell yourself “I’ll cope”. And you will!
- During your warm-up, gently monitor how you’re doing, and balance your excitement with mellowness. Also, look about you, notice the sky and trees. As you increase your exertion, your heart rate and related physiological aspects will resemble the ‘fight-or-flight’ state: you can use this! Your energy-delivery system, muscles and awareness are getting ready for intense effort. You’re collaborating with yourself now.
- As you approach the start-line, you might notice the other racers with their ‘coping strategies’ – checking tires, making small-talk, worrying or distracting themselves.
- Your job is to do what’s right for you. Don’t pay too much attention to the conversation of the other athletes. There might be riders you know there, it’s up to you if you want to chat.
- Listen up for the race-referee’s announcements.
- Following your warm-up, your heart rate will be higher, but you can still maintain your strategies:
- Stabilize your breathing.
- Keep your muscles relaxed.
- Gently bring the calm sensations from your daily practice to mind.
- Tell yourself “I’m ready” and focus your gaze a couple-hundred yards down the road, or trail, where you’ll soon be settled into the race and seeing what happens. Once you’re out there, you’ll have plenty to think about!
A Six-Step Mental Training Plan
- Learn to spot unrealistic or defeatist reflections.
If you have a thought that leads to feelings of resignation, challenge it promptly. Speak to yourself as if you were encouraging a friend or colleague. For example, if the thought is “I’ve got no chance,” then you might re-phrase it into “Well, it could be really tough, but I’m pretty tough, too.”
- Acknowledge your own strength, resourcefulness and resilience.
On all those occasions when you manage and cope just fine, recognize this in yourself. It doesn’t have to be immodest; if it’s true of you, you should know!
- Generate habits of composure.
In everyday life, be aware of the skills you already have in managing yourself and circumstances. Make a note of the healthy ways in which you handle your stresses. Use these methods at every opportunity; they’ll probably combine taking a deep breath, relaxing the muscles, calming the thoughts, and focusing the attention. Practice this frequently, so that composure becomes more automatic.
- Play up the benefits of competition.
Take time to remind yourself of the pleasure and excitement of racing. Picture the thrilling events you have watched, and taken part in. Remember the sheer fun of hard effort, battling for a place, and the satisfaction of finishing.
- Develop and rehearse a race-prep and start line routine.
Look back over this article, and design for yourself a routine that has you prepared in all aspects; one that you can rely on to keep you alert and ready. Follow the triage: practicalities, physical readiness, and psychological preparedness. Be specific, with a ‘to do’ checklist, and a set of activities and spoken phrases that work for you as your race approaches. Some people benefit by scheduling everything, while others do better with a more free-form approach. Find what works for you. With practice, you’ll become adept at finding your optimal, calm center when you’re right at the race start.
- Make a regular habit of a balanced and constructive review.
After each race, look back over the details and assess realistically how you prepared for it and managed yourself throughout. ‘Realistically’ means with a balanced critique: where you did well, say so. If there’s something you’d change next time, specify it. If you deviated from your ‘good plan’, work out why, and either improve the routine, or re-commit to it!
You’ll notice that this plan is designed around habits. Practice these strategies often, so they become automatic, and you’ll find them reliable in race-day situations too.
Always frame your words, phrases, and visualizations in positive terms. There is ample evidence that thoughts and mental rehearsals that use positive language work well even for people who are skeptical. Avoiding negative self-talk and instead creating useful alternatives to pessimistic thinking is your aim.
Remember, you don’t need to be totally relaxed, just manageably so. Regular practice of these strategies is the key to the optimal state.
Head Coach Paul Page-Hanson, M.A. has been a psychotherapist in London for over 10 years. He is now a licensed cycling coach, massage therapist and body work specialist working with all levels of abilities on the dirt and road. He works out of San Francisco and is available for mental skills training and coaching as well as bike fitting and riding skills clinics.