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Use Pre-Race Anxiety to Boost your Performance

6 steps to get your pre-race anxiety under control

You are standing in the athlete briefing area, you have your wetsuit on, the hot sun is hitting your swimming hat. You can’t decide whether you should have your goggles on your head, on your eyes or in your hands. Your hands are sweating. In fact your whole body is sweating. Your heart is beating like a full steel band inside your chest. You wonder if you can still breathe. Your shoulders are near your ears, you are still sweating, you feel tired. Do you feel a little dizzy? Are you shaking?

Does any of this sound familiar to you? I suspect that all of you have experienced these sensations in some way in the lead up to races. They are of course, the classic symptoms of stress. The classic symptoms of pre-race anxiety.

You might experience your pre-race anxiety a little differently…. Being held at the start might be your period of calm. You may have already been to the toilet 17 times, and been unable to eat a morsel of breakfast, but once you are in the start pen, you might feel ok?

Cognitively, do you notice any changes in your behaviour? Do you struggle with memory or thinking clearly in relation to your race and other simple life tasks as race day gets nearer? Do you experience worried thoughts or dreams? Or nightmares?

How are you in the weeks leading up to a ‘big’ race? Often as athletes we become grouchy, angry, irritated, unable to relax, or negative – something our loved ones take the brunt of. Often we don’t realise how our behaviour has changed until we have a miraculous personality transformation as soon as the race is out of the way.

So not only do we put our bodies through a vigorous work out during the race, our bodies have already used important energy reserves fighting and responding to the pre-race stress.

We know that pre-race anxiety, or our response to a perceived stress can help our performance. The adrenaline produced helps fire us into action, and can keep us going under race pressure.

But too much pre-race anxiety is energy depleting, confidence knocking and can lead to disappointing performance. So how can we get the balance of nerves and performance right?

Before we start looking at some of the actions we can take to help deal with our pre-race anxiety, let me frame my suggestions. I am not a trained sports psychologist. I do not have a medical background. My experience comes from years of coaching; from talking to and mentoring athletes; from reading as much as I can and from talking to peer coaches who I admire and respect. These ideas and suggestions come from my own experience and from the experience of others. In this blog I am trying to put together the things I have learnt and experienced to provide a starting point for anyone who is baffled by the impact of their pre-race nerves. I urge you to follow some of the links and references in this blog and to read more widely on the subject!

1. Control the Controllables

It sounds obvious, but few athletes do this effectively.

Kit List

Draw up a kit list – or get out your kit list from your previous race. Review the kit list. Importantly, also review your kit. Is it in race shape? Does anything need replacing? Has anything gone missing since the last race? Re-write the kit list and confirm to yourself you have everything that you need.

Review your kit list, and your kit, carefully before you leave for the race. Leave nothing to chance.

Race Itinerary

Come up with a race day itinerary. This piece of advice was given to me by Simon Ward and whilst simple, it is one of the best pieces of advice I have had. What time will you set your alarm for? How many times are you allowed to snooze it? What time will you wash? What time will you set aside for toilet visits? What time will you start making breakfast? What time will you eat it? What will you have? What time will you leave the house? What time will you arrive at the venue?

With a detailed timeline, you have controlled the controllables. You have worked out how long you will need for each task and you can remove a lot of the fear of the unknown simply by doing this.

If you live near enough or have time to acclimatise to the race venue in the preceding days, do a course recce. Write down any notable features that you wish to remember.

If you have trouble eating on race day, give this some thought in the lead up. Come up with a range of foods that will be easy to swallow and not over whelming. Start to practice eating these for breakfast.

Write yourself a letter

Another way to understand and overcome your fears is to write them down in a letter. You can then spend some time pondering how you could over come each fear and write a letter in reply. If this feels weird, imagine your friend is writing to you, and think about how you would advise them on their worries.

Practice being out of your comfort zone

Completing B races and practice races and race simulations will get your body used to those feelings of pre race nerves. The more you do, the more routine your races become.

In my experience, many triathletes have often been high achievers in life in general and have not often found themselves exposed to a task that they fear or can’t do. I recommend that athletes set themselves tasks in their daily lives that take them outside of their comfort zone and that they might ‘fail’ at. Dealing with these fears and emotions in the every day environment can also help your response on race day.

Appraise your environment on race day

You have your itinerary so you know exactly what you are doing on race morning. You will have given yourself time to absorb the atmosphere and the environment, and you will have time to do some final checks. One athlete told us that she manages her anxiety by ensuring there are no surprises on race day, and she spends time pacing out the distances between her bike and transition, and ensures she has the best route to get out of transition locked into her mind. It is worth looking carefully at the swim course on the morning of the race, and think about where the sun is, where the buoys are how they relate to any useful landmarks that can help you with your sighting.

2. Visualisation

Visualisation is an incredibly powerful tool in managing pre-race nerves. Visualisation can commence a few weeks out from the event, and you can go back to your visualisation at any time.

Take yourself through the race step by step. Imagine how you will feel at each stage. Start to think about different scenarios that can occur along the way. I don’t believe in just thinking about your perfect race, as races can take interesting turns. Spend time thinking about how you will respond if things don’t quite go to plan. What will you do if you get kicked in the head and your goggles come off, or you have a mechanical? How will you deal with that emotionally? Use this visualisation time to address the things that you are worried about, by finding a solution that you can implement if it happens on race day. If you worry about the weather or the environment, think about things that you can do that will help negate the effect of a really cold bike or a really hot run.

Keep the visualisation positive and realistic. No matter what the race throws at you, you can provide a positive response.

As you come to the end of your race in your visualisation think about how you will feel. Capture that feeling and use it in the pre-race build up to boost your confidence.

Kelly Roberts talks about this in her Podcast The Pre Race Pep Talk : She Can and She Did. She goes back to a conversation with a coach who told her – No Regrets, No Excuses. She looks further into what this means. Sometimes you have the perfect race, and sometimes you spend the whole day negotiating with yourself. Her overriding point is that during those negotiations you always have the chance to say yes. She asserts that we are all too quick to ‘brace for impact’ and urges the listener to break that cycle and start to ‘imagine the you that you have trained to be’.

3. Distraction

We asked our athletes how they best dealt with nerves, and one of the main responses was to distract themselves. One athlete explained that chatting at the start of a race and helping others with their worries actually helped them to forget about their own anxiety.

Using distraction techniques such as the alphabet game (where you pick a topic – eg animals and have to work through the alphabet finding an animal for each letter ) can work wonders pre race, and also when the race itself gets tough. Some other ideas could include, redecorating a room in your house (in your head), imagining what you would spend the money on if you won the lottery, working out hard maths equations, singing Bohemian Rhapsody or even simple counting.

Watch this video and see what you think....

4. Self-Talk

I have heard a lot of conversations about elite athletes and how they frame their nerves as excitement and use the nerves as an opportunity rather than a threat. In an article on ‘The New Science of Embracing Performance Anxiety’ Alexi Pappas, a 10,000m runner, is quoted as saying that even pre-race nightmares should not be feared….

“…they should be embraced as a friendly indication that we care very much about the challenge ahead. Nervous is a cousin to excited”

The article goes on to explain that giving certain sensations a negative label – for example butterflies in your stomach – has a trickle-down effect. It takes a large amount of physical and emotional energy to fight being anxious. This is energy that we do not want to waste! The article quotes an Experimental Psychology paper that suggests that simply saying ‘I am excited’ causes a shift from a threat mindset to an opportunity mindset. One of our own athletes commented that disastrous pre-race dreams actually made her feel more confident as the worst case scenario had already been addressed!

Self-talk is a way of overcoming negative thoughts via positive statements. It is about removing self-doubt with positive reinforcement. For example, if a basketball player tells himself “I am not going to make this basket” they will need to practice replacing that thought with “I am going to make this shot”. (‘Positive Self Talk in Athletes Improves Performance, By Elisabeth Quinn, The more we practice replacing negative talk with positive the easier and more spontaneous it will become.

Some athletes practice self-talk by preparing scripts to read through before the big race. The scripts, when read, remind the athlete of their strength and power to overcome and perform.

Professor Steve Peters’ well known book – ‘The Chimp Paradox is a must read here. The premise of the Chimp Paradox is that your ‘chimp’ is suspicious, wary, paranoid and delusional, and is roaming around in your brain. Left unattended it can cause much damage. The chimp can’t be controlled but can be managed, and the book shows you how to tame the chimp using a variety of techniques.

Using the chimp analogy and reading the book is a key way to manage some of your pre-race nerves and reactions. One of our athletes commented that he used to suffer from severe panic attacks when racing at the start of the swim. After reading The Chimp Paradox he changed his reponse to the panic….

“… allowing myself to lift my head, remind myself I am not injured, I can’t drown in a wetsuit, just keep breaststroking and going forwards, slow the breathing down…. Once into my stroke I would mentally see my chimp, put him in a headlock, punch him several times in the face and throw him into his cage. That chimp doesn’t leave that cage on race day until I tell it to”

Develop a Mantra

Choosing a mantra is a great use of the self-talk technique. Choose a mantra that has impact, that means something to you (you don’t have to tell anyone else what it is), and that is short and memorable.

In Yoga, you often set your intention for the practice. I often choose ‘I will be strong’. A mantra is similar but it is a reminder of why you are there, of why you are forcing yourself through those pre-race nerves, and latterly the race.

A mantra can also be useful if you are panicking in the swim, an athlete of ours, who hated swimming and open water would get through his races by reciting relax, relax, breathe – an easy take on the Swim Smooth breathe, bubble, bubble, breathe drill.

5. Body Language

Changing your body language can help to overcome your nerves and also to build your own self confidence. Opening up your chest and standing tall can release chemicals that make you feel stronger, and less nervous. Amy Cuddy did a fabulous TED talk on this subject and it is something I have used every day since!

6. Breathing and Relaxation Techniques

Simply slowing down your breathing and looking up wards can reduce your pre-race nerves. Try breathing in for 3, and out for 3, and noticing when your breath moves up through your body and back down again. Notice the cold air going in, and the warm air going out.

You may also want to try grounding yourself by looking around you and making a mental list of things you can see. Maybe pick out blue things, or trees, or whatever takes your interest.

Using apps like Headspace can provide you with brilliant relaxation sessions. Or try some Yoga Nidra. Or get a friend or a coach to write or record a relaxation script just for you. A funny story I heard from a Coach friend of mine was that two of their athletes were sharing a room at the World Champs one year and both were listening intently to something and 'in the zone' with their headphones on. Neither would admit what they were listening to, but it eventually turned out that they were both listening to the relaxation script written by and read out by their Coach!! Whilst it might seem a little odd if you haven’t tried it, these relaxations can take you into a whole new world, and get you out of your head and either into your body, or even to a beach in the Maldives.

One of our athletes recommended ‘Good’ on Buddify, and also sent another one for us to try out:

To finish this blog, we should remind ourselves that most of us do endurance sport FOR FUN. Whilst we can be ambitious, determined and persistent, we must not lose sight of the fact that most of us do this for enjoyment and to improve our health and well-being.

Coach Jerry Alexander recalled a conversation he had with a previous coach. On seeing his nerves, the coach said to him:

There is no reason for you to be nervous because there are only two people who care how you do, and that’s me and you”

Kate Offord is Co-Owner of Smiling Tri Coach, Head Coach at Manchester Triathlon Club, Coach Development Tutor at British Triathlon Federation and a Level 3 Coach.



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