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Pre-Race Nerves: When thoughts are just....thoughts

Have you found yourself fearing failure, fearing success, or being filled with dread before a race? What the heck! This was supposed to be FUN!⁣

Much of racing success is being able to adapt when expectation doesn't match reality, and if your pre-race reality includes a tsunami of uncomfortable thoughts, it's important to know how to process and move forward.

It's NORMAL to be nervous and experience negative thoughts before a race. Racing requires bravery and vulnerability, and your brain is doing its best job to preemptively protect you. This primal experience isn't a sign that you aren't prepared or won't do well : sometimes thoughts are just thoughts!

To manage pre-race nerves:

  • Believe that negative thoughts are normal, accept them, and then do your best to push them out by reaffirming yourself positively. Worried you'll bomb? Nope - you're ready and you're going to rock it.

  • Make a race plan and have clear objectives for different parts of the race. Focusing on executing a plan leaves less room for unhelpful emotions.

  • Practice mantras and positive self-talk in training. Workouts are less chaotic than races which provides a good environment to practice mental skills.

  • Trust in yourself and your training. If you commit to doing your best job of racing smart and tough, the outcome will be what it will be.

  • Chat about your race plan and fears with your coach or someone in your support system. Verbalizing your discomfort can help get you out of your head and add rationality and reassurance to how you view the race

Pre-race anxiety can feel like something only you are experiencing, but absolutely everyone goes through moments of fear, panic, or negativity before a race. During my professional track and field career, I don't think I ever lined up for a race without a fleeting moment of fear or dread and a brief questioning of why I choose to do this. However, experience (and conversations with my peers) has taught me that this is normal, expected, and benign. My coping strategy: I acknowledge the familiar anxious feeling, then immediately counter it with a positive thought : "I'm ready", "This is normal, nerves are energy", or "This will pass, I can do this". Once the gun goes off, all is forgotten.

Don't let your physical training get sidelined by ignoring the importance of pre-race anxiety management. Putting together a great race performance is an art, and developing mental and physical skills takes time and practice. Each race is an opportunity to progress your craft - lean in and learn what works for you!

By Jessica O’Connell, CSEP-CEP, MSc, OLY, track/XC coach at the University of Calgary and endurance coach at Grit Coaching. Check out our individual run coaching options!

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