7 Steps to Manage Pre-Race Nerves and Improve Your Performance

  • Do you get pre-race nerves in the build up to a big event?

  • Do they effect you so much that they impact your performance?

  • Have you ever pulled out of a race before it even started because you didn’t believe you were ready?

If the answer to any of the above is ‘yes’, then you’re not alone.

I’m actually going through this experience at the moment.

As my world record attempt gets closer, the nerves and anxiety are getting bigger and bigger.

Note - At the time of writing, my attempt is only 6 weeks away! After nearly 18 months of preparation.

I have just completed a hugely successful weekend of training - where I ran 80 miles on Saturday and 80 miles on Sunday.

Plus, I was with my support team and we learnt a huge amount just by being with each other. 

But, despite these positive outcomes, I have come out of the weekend with more questions, and less confidence, about my world record attempt.

After telling this to my my sports psychologist, Evie Serventi, she told me to write my feelings down.

And when I started doing that, I realised that all athletes experience a lack of confidence at some point.

And so I thought I’d share some techniques that I use to deal with nerves about upcoming races and challenges.

These techniques have worked previously for me, for athletes that I’ve coached and for Evie’s athletes too.

And I’ll be using them in the next 6 weeks as I try to build my confidence back up.

In summary here are my 7 steps. Read the rest of the article for the detail.

  1. Practise - Practise all these in training. Just like you would practise any other part of a training plan

  2. Prepare Thoroughly

  3. Write Down Your Fears

  4. Acknowledge Your Successes and Preparation

  5. Focus on What You Can Control

  6. Use Positive Self-Talk and Imagery

  7. Prepare Your Body

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Why Do You Get Pre-Race Nerves?

First, it’s important to say that everyone suffers from some form of pre-race anxiety.

And it’s completely normal. 

Whether you’re entering your first 5km.

Or you’re going for 1st place at your 100th 100 miler.

Some people enjoy getting nerves as it prepares them for the challenge ahead.

Whilst others hate it and desperately try to think of ways to control it.

But the crucial thing is how you deal with your nerves. And how you deal with them can lead to whether they help or hinder your performance.

But why do we get pre-race nerves in the first place?

According to Runner’s Connect, it’s our body and mind preparing us by using the ‘fight or flight’ response.

Whilst, Nickademus Hollon, an elite athlete who came 2nd in the ultra-challenging Tor des Geants, says that “through self-expectation and the expectation of others, I experienced an immense amount of pre-race anxiety”

How Can Pre-Race Nerves Impact Your Performance?

No matter why you get them, nerves can lead to a positive or negative response from an athlete.

You could either...

  1. Perform Better - Because the release of adrenaline relaxes and prepares you for the challenge ahead

  2. Perform Worse - Because over stimulation of your nervous system means you can experience:

    • Increased heart rate - resulting in heavier breathing and more effort

    • Increased metabolic activity - resulting in increased calorie burn and using energy less efficiently

    • Reduced ability to think clearly

    • Not being able to sleep as well

    • Negative thinking - leading to reduced confidence

What Methods Can You Use to Deal With Pre-Race Nerves?

When you’re standing at the start line of a race and are feeling these nerves it may seem overwhelming.

But there are lots of techniques that you can use to overcome them.

  • Practise

The first thing to know is that you need to practise all of the techniques.

Practise in training. Practise outside of training. And practise in your smaller, less important races.

I treat the psychological element just like I treat any other part of my training plan.

I make time to train my brain.

Just like I make time to train my body by doing a long run. Or speed work. Or yoga.

  • Prepare Thoroughly

Being thoroughly prepared for a race is one of the simplest ways to control nerves.

This articles gives you 4 tips on how to prepare for a race.

You should research what the race is going to be like. Ask yourself questions like:

  • How much climbing is there?

  • When are the aid stations?

  • When are the difficult points likely to be?

By knowing these, you can train specifically for them.

Getting out and practising on the course itself would be ideal. But it’s often not practical.

So finding areas that you can replicate race conditions will help you build confidence.

By knowing the race details, you can also create a relevant race strategy.

This will include things like your goal pace, nutrition strategy and psychological techniques you can use if things get tough.

And a race strategy should also include your targets.

Running.com suggests creating flexible targets. They refer to them as Good, Great and Awesome.

Preparing a plan for the specifics of the days leading up to the race, and the day itself, can also help control stress.

Make sure you research exactly where you have to be and when.

This is where a thorough checklist can help you make a plan.

And you can pick up a FREE pre-race checklist by clicking the button below.

I’ve used this checklist personally in my race victories in 100km and 100 mile events.

So it works!

  • Write Down Your Fears

Elite athlete Nickademus Hollon writes his fears down on a sheet of paper.

He then orders them from biggest to smallest.

And comes up with solutions to each of them.

This is similar to the ‘If/ Then’ framework that Evie Serventi has taught me.

This is where you write down a series of situations that may happen. And then what you would do to overcome them.

The situations could be physical or mental.

For example

  • ‘IF I am feeling down, THEN I will force myself to eat and drink’.

  • ‘IF I am still feeling down after eating and drinking, THEN I will use music to motivate me’.

These can be incredibly personal. And the list can get quite extensive as you think of all the things that could possibly happen.

But it is a very effective method for making you feel more prepared to take on problems if they come up.

  • Acknowledge Your Successes and Preparation

It’s highly likely that you’ve put in a huge amount of effort and preparation to even get to the start line.

And recognising this can help you realise how well prepared you are for the challenge ahead.

Evie says that you can “Nurture confidence by acknowledging evidence”.

Think about the training you’ve done, the good nutrition plan you’ve followed, or simply the fact that you are uninjured going into this race.

Evie Serventi is my sports psychologist  . She has taught me numerous techniques for dealing with pre-race nerves. Including ‘if/ then’ strategies, acknowledging successes and using visualisation

Evie Serventi is my sports psychologist. She has taught me numerous techniques for dealing with pre-race nerves. Including ‘if/ then’ strategies, acknowledging successes and using visualisation

TrainingPeaks suggests a practical way of acknowledging your successes is to review your training log.

Then you can literally see how much distance you’ve put in to get to this point.

“If you’ve done the training and have an executable race plan, you have everything you need for a good performance”
— Runner's Connect
  • Focus on What You Can Control

A big element of handling nerves is focusing on what you can actually control. Rather than everything you can’t.

Triathlete.com advises to focus on process goals, not outcome goals.

If your primary fear is failing to achieve your goals, stop thinking about your goal and instead think about executing your race plan.

If you can’t stop looking at what others are doing, then use Nickademus Hollon’s approach. He removes himself from social media in the build up to a race. Then he doesn’t get influenced by what others are saying and doing.

And TrainingPeaks tells you to stop comparing yourself to others. Just remember what YOUR goals are.

You should also avoid high stress areas, like the very front of the start line

And Runner’s World suggests using a pre-race ritual to help create familiarity and focus on what you can actually control.

And part of a good ritual, is having a good checklist!

Don’t forget, you can grab your FREE pre-race checklist by using the button below.

  • Use Positive Self-Talk and Imagery

Self-talk has been proven in many studies to improve performance.

And it is even claimed to be better than visualisation and goal-setting.

I’ve started using a mantra recently.

My mantra is ‘Stronger with Every Step’

I say it to give myself confidence and focus when I’m feeling negative in training.

Stronger With Every Step
— The mantra that I use

This simple sentence means a number of different things to me:

  1. Physically - Literally, every step I take in training will make me more prepared for future challenges

  2. Metaphorically - Every non-physical step I take forward makes me stronger. For example, that first ‘step’ in creating a plan, or the first ‘step’ in asking someone for help

  3. Perseverance - No matter how hard the last step was, the next step will make me stronger. So I must get there

I strongly recommend you making a mantra for yourself.

It’s one of the simplest and quickest things you can do.

Here’s some simple advice on how to create a good mantra:

  • Make it easily memorable

  • Use rhyming or alliteration to make it stick - For example, “fast as a fox, strong as an ox.”

  • Ensure that it is positive - For example, “Pain is temporary” or “hurt is good” are not effective because your mind subconsciously holds on to the negative words

  • Write your mantra on a note card and carry it around with you

Visualisation is another powerful tool that I use.

This article by Running.com outlines three different forms of visualisation.

One of the most powerful visualisations I have created is the finish of my attempt to run from Land’s End to John o’ Groats.

I’ve never been to John o’ Groats before.

But I can imagine my wife and two daughters being at the signpost as I finish.

As well as other family members, and, of course, my support crew.

Visualising my family at the John o’ Groats signpost is one of the most powerful images I will call on when I am in dark times during my challenge

Visualising my family at the John o’ Groats signpost is one of the most powerful images I will call on when I am in dark times during my challenge

Another method to reduce nerves is to look at a race in a different perspective.

In my four years as a college athlete, I had a few fantastic races and I ran downright terrible at times; yet, none of that mattered now. Friends didn’t abandon me, the world didn’t end, and I actually recall those bad races with a chuckle for how poorly they went
— Jeff Gaudette - Runner's Connect

And this article on Active.com advises you to ‘think of racing as the reward’ for all the hard work you’ve done in training.

  • Prepare Your Body

Finally, there are some simple, physical steps you can take to relax.

Listening to music can work as a calming, or motivating, factor.

Generally, I don’t listen to music when I run.

Even when I do 100km training runs.

But if I am feeling particularly low, and other techniques have failed, I pull out my secret weapon…

… My ‘Ultra-Running Motivational Playlist’ on Spotify!

This is a collection of incredibly upbeat, sing-a-long songs that I would never listen to in any other circumstance.

It’s got Steps, S Club 7, Take That and many other cheesy, but uplifting tunes, that make me feel instantly happy.

And it includes a lot of themes to Disney musicals with princesses that remind me of my daughters.

Were you walking along the River Thames near Reading at 11pm during the Autumn 100 race last year?

Then you may have heard me signing along to The Little Mermaid at the top of my lungs!

Another method is to focus specifically on relaxing your muscles.

Think about each major muscle group and tighten and release each one separately.

Breathing can also help you relax and calm - This Runner’s World article gives a very simple, effective breathing exercise to calm your nerves.

And smile!

Smiling has been proven to increase performance. And is maybe why elite athletes like Eliud Kipchoge and Camille Herron are the best in the world

Summary

Being nervous can be a good thing. As long as you have the tools and techniques to control those nerves.

Here’s how you can do that:

  1. Practise - You should practise these in training just like you would practise any other part of a training plan

  2. Prepare Thoroughly

  3. Write Down Your Fears

  4. Acknowledge Your Successes and Preparation

  5. Focus on What You Can Control

  6. Use Positive Self-Talk and Imagery

  7. Prepare Your Body

“Being a little nervous before a race means you care about your performance and have put in a lot of hard training to prepare”
— Jeff Gaudette

What Methods Do You Use to Deal with Pre-Race Nerves?

Let me know in the comments at the bottom of this blog, on the Contact Page or on social media below. 

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