How to Calm Those Pre-Race Jitters

By Seth Rose | May 28, 2019, 8:40 a.m. (ET)

Pre race nerves

And just like that it’s race week.

You have put countless hours of training into this build up for your race. You have made sacrifices or snuck out of bed before your significant other or kids can hear you scramble your way to the kitchen to grab your water bottles before your early morning training session.

The tapering has either already begun or is about to start. Suddenly, you begin to think that you are losing fitness or putting on extra weight. Your mind and body have been go, go, go for three, six, maybe even eight months for this big moment. Now, it’s almost as if you have to have someone lock up your training gear to prevent you from training too much.

What are we going to do with all this extra time?

We've all experienced this. Checking the weather report every couple of hours each day. Imagining the swim start in the open water. Questioning our training and fitness. Seeing who else is going to be in your age group. Checking past times.

The nerves kick in.

All these negative thoughts of doubt, worry and fear strike the common athlete. All of sudden, no amount of training you’ve done in the past can help you in this moment. We lose confidence in ourselves. Hormones like adrenaline and cortisol have been flooded into the body, causing what’s known as the stress response. Symptoms arise, such as elevated heart rates, shaking uncontrollably, clammy palms, butterflies in your stomach and tunnel vision.

More negative thoughts creep in. What do we do now?

Fortunately, our brain is like a muscle and we can train it to help us get mentally prepared and ready to gain control of these pre-race anxious thoughts that most athletes so commonly have.

Inhale/Exhale: Find a relaxation technique that works for you

The first step in anxiety reduction, coping with fears and controlling your performance is controlling the body and mind with relaxation techniques. This can be done by simple breathing patterns where you inhale for four seconds, and exhale for six seconds. Notice the longer time exhaling here. This cycle of breathing allows more oxygen to the body (and brain), increased sustained attention and focus, decreased muscle tension and decreased negative emotions and stress. 

Other techniques for relaxation include progressive muscle relaxation using body scans. Body scans start from your head down, where you purposely tense up individual muscle groups (three to five seconds) and then subsequently release and relax the muscle (15 seconds), slowly working your way down to your feet. The goal is to be able to recognize when you have stress or tension in the body and to release that tension prior to a performance.

Try downloading these free apps on your phone to help practice calming those nerves: Headspace and Calm.

Confidence: Preparation & own your success

We know that stressful events cause us to prepare. Think about how you might prepare for a test or exam. You know you need to study to do well. So, you prepare by studying terminology, concepts and topics. By the time you walk in to take the test, you are hopefully confident in your abilities. 

Racing is no different. We sign up for a race and prepare by training. We build our fitness up and train the way we want to race. Sometimes we even will train in similar terrain (hills, trails, cold/hot/humid, etc.) to make us even more prepared for that race!

This is all building up your confidence levels.

“But Seth, race week is here, and I still don’t feel ready.”

That’s fine. So, look back at all your training sessions. Look at the ones you absolutely crushed. All your power numbers, heart rate numbers, or even times were just off the charts. Think about those and imagine yourself doing them again, imagine the feeling.

Past successes create future successes. Own those times you did well.

However, we know that stats only tell part of the story and that you are more than any number. We don’t have to feel good to perform well. Look at the times when you still had great training sessions, but you were sore or tired or didn’t feel good. You were still able to perform!

Sometimes when we reflect on the “not-so-good” training sessions, but still did OK, we can build confidence from those to help us when we get to our race.

Anchor your focus to the present moment

I am a strong believer in present moment focus. What I mean by that is that your focus, thoughts, feelings and behaviors are strictly in the present, not thinking about the past or future. With so much added pressure and distractions outside of your sport that can negatively influence your performance, we need to manage the moment and stay present.

As you get close to race week, try this. Instead of aimlessly breathing in for four seconds and out for six seconds, try counting with your inhale and exhale, and when you have a thought or distraction come in, redirect your attention to the breath and continue the counting. This form of meditation can improve your chances of present moment focus and decrease the chances of negative thoughts and emotions creeping in prior to a race. 

This is a learned skill that should be practiced daily a week or two out from a race. That way, when race day comes you have trained your mind to be ready.

Hopefully these strategies can help you during stressful times and you can conquer your pre-race anxieties. If you have more questions or want to learn more, send us a message and we can chat!

Seth Rose is a Mental Performance Consultant and founder of Transition Performance. He is USAT Lv 1 certified, Covina High Swim Coach, and Lecturer in Kinesiology at Cal State University, Fullerton. He enjoys training and racing triathlon and spending time with his fiancee and two dogs.