Dealing with pre-race nerves

Have you ever woken up on the day of a long run or a race and been filled with fear? Or maybe you are tapering for a big race and you’re losing confidence in yourself (“maranoia” ring any bells)?
You can’t eat. You can’t drink. You’ve been to the toilet about 23764 times. You’re thinking the worst (and if you’re tapering, you might even think you’re injured). You feel agitated and you snap at anyone who tries to talk to you. You don’t listen to anyone who tells you “it will be fine”.  Does that sound like you? If so, you’re probably suffering from a bit of anxiety. That’s okay. It just means you care, and that’s totally normal.
I have suffered from many of these symptoms recently. I have had numerous niggles in my glutes and hips which has led to a less-than-consistent and stressful marathon training cycle. So I’ve made a list of all the things that have helped me overcome this anxiety.

Make a list and check it twice

I love lists. I am insanely organised. In fact, one of my favourite places to go at work is the stationary cupboard (I can see you judging me and that’s fine). One of the reasons I love being organised is because it makes me feel in control. And when you feel anxious, it’s often because you feel out of control. So take the control back and make yourself a list.

Make a list of everything you need to take and do before your run and try to tick some of it off before you go to bed. Lay your kit out and check you have everything you need. Pin your number to your vest (if you can) and pack extra safety pins. Do you need vaseline, Bodyglide or K-tape? If so, get it out ready. Plan your breakfast and get it ready before bed. Charge your watch and put it on top of your kit. Do you need nutrition? If so, get your gels and food ready. Do you need a post-run change of clothes?

Take yourself away for 10 minutes

If you have a big run or race, the chances are you probably didn’t sleep very well. If you start feeling anxious whilst you’re still at home, just go and sit quietly on your own. Make a mental (or physical) note of all the things that are stressing you out. Are you worried about a reoccurring injury? Have you had time off and now you are worried about your fitness? Are you putting pressure on yourself to get a new PB? Is this a new distance that you haven’t run before?

By simply pinpointing what you are anxious about, you have already solved half of the problem. You recognise what is stressing you out. I sometimes find that by doing this, I am able to make sense of my fears and talk myself out of them. For example, before a recent race, I was pulling my stomach into knots worrying about a reoccurring injury that might prevent me from running a 20 mile race. I went through every single scenario in my head as to what might happen (even going as far as collapsing and being left on my own in the middle of the countryside – fear doesn’t always have to be rational!). The night before the race, I planned all the places I could pull out if absolutely necessary. I set myself three goals (see below) so that by the time I got to the race, I actually felt quite calm and I had accepted that I could only go out and do my best.

Friend or foe?

Most runners love racing. It’s a great opportunity to push yourself in a controlled environment, surrounded by other likeminded people doing the same. Racing can give you a real buzz. On the flip side, the pressure of performing your best can leave you feeling really exposed.  If you do get to a race and start feeling this way, I find people put themselves into two categories: those who like to spend time on their own and those who like to be surrounded by others.

If you are the former, take yourself away from the crowds, concentrate on your warm up and do some drills.  Then use some of the other techniques below to calm yourself down. Remember, this is your race and you are in control. If you are the latter, chat to friends or other runners. The wonderful thing about the running community is that everyone is so friendly. You don’t have to talk about your feelings – I have talked to other runners about all sorts at race HQ before from the weather to my favourite pair of flip flops! Just do whatever you need to do to distract yourself.

Listen to music

One of the best ways to distract yourself is to listen to music and the great thing is that you can do it almost at any time. It has the ability to take you to a difference place and instantly change your mood. And because your music is personal to you, you can listen to whatever makes you feel good and puts you in a positive mood.

Breathe… 1,2,3,4….

A tried and tested theory. It might sound cliche, but have you tried it? It really does work. Focus on taking controlled deep breaths. If you have done yoga or pilates, you know it’s all about the breathing. It can actually be a great distraction and the technique works wherever you are, whatever you are doing. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Nice and slow. Focus on different parts of your body with every breath.

If I am out running and feel like i’m having a bit of a hard time, I have started counting to 100 with every other breath (if it’s good enough for Paula Radcliffe then it’s good enough for me). Basically, if I get to 100 and still feel rubbish, I simply do it again. I distinctly remember getting to mile 15 of an 18 mile run in January and I was so tired and desperate to stop. Rather than stop, I started counting (I think I got to 600!!) and before I knew it, I was 0.3 miles from home and had logged my fastest miles of the whole run!

Gold, Silver, Bronze

Okay, so things don’t always go to plan. For whatever reason, you don’t have the run you wanted. Instead of putting all that pressure on yourself to hit that one goal, make three. For me, my bronze goal is always one of two things: (i) to finish the run I have set out to do and/or (ii) to enjoy myself. My silver and gold goals will usually (but not always) be pace based.

As runners, we obsess so much about pace and distance. Depending on your reasons for running, for the majority of us, we do it because it’s good for our mental and physical wellbeing. Sound body, sound mind. If that’s the case, then it’s okay to go out and run slow every now and then. You don’t have to hit a PB or have a structure on every run. Some of my favourite runs have involved stopping mid way through a trail to appreciate my surroundings or wandering off-piste to explore a new path before returning to my run.

Stay positive

You’ll be amazed at what your body is capable of even when under you put it under pressure and even when you haven’t had the perfect training cycle. Your mind is a complex thing, but it is not as clever as you think. Here me out. I say this all the time, but have you ever tried hysterically fake laughing? If you haven’t, try doing it now without actually smiling and feeling silly. It’s impossible. Which just goes to show how easy it is to trick yourself into feeling good. And when you feel good, you release endorphins, which further stimulate more happy thoughts.

Visualise your success. If you are at a race, think about all of the components of what you consider will make it a good run. How are you going to approach it? Imagine crossing the finish line having smashed all of your goals and had a great time in the process. How does that make you feel? Tell yourself you are calm and confident. Smile at anyone and everything and tell yourself YOU HAVE GOT THIS.

You’re not alone

Ultimately, we all deal with pre-race jitters differently. If you are feeling anxious or stressed out, please know that you are not alone. Most runners will feel anxious at some point. And in some cases, low levels of stress can be beneficial as it increases adrenaline and gets the body ready for action.

Running is just as much about the mental battle as it is the physical. So focus on the present and use these techniques above to channel that nervous energy to your advantage. Go easy on yourself, you’re only human after all.