Race day is a huge event for athletes. Race day will define the effectiveness of their training, test their limits, and define their overall journey. That’s why it’s normal for athletes to feel anxious during race day. When faced with a daunting task and multiple competitors, athletes may doubt their abilities and develop other negative emotions that can affect performance.
No athlete wants to succumb to anxiety and self-sabotage. Athletes only want one thing: to succeed. With that, we’ll help you deal with your nerves and reduce anxiety before a race. Here are 10 proven tips that can help you be in the right state of mind at the starting line:
Engage in Stress-Relieving Activities
Discover and engage in stress-relieving activities during training and downtime. Of course, the hunt would be different for every athlete since each of us has our own hobbies, preferences, and other interests.
Many athletes and coaches highly recommend mind and body activities like yoga or meditation. Just be careful in choosing the type of yoga exercises you want to participate in. Some can cause physical stress on your body during training. Don’t do activities that can tax your muscles.
Other relaxing yet active activities you can enjoy are hiking, painting, and reading. You can also go for a picnic or try a relaxing massage. As much as possible, spend your time outdoors, preferably in places with a non-stressful environment. Research shows that exposure to natural environments can offer mental health benefits.
“There is growing evidence to suggest that exposure to natural environments can be associated with mental health benefits. Proximity to greenspace has been associated with lower levels of stress and reduced symptomology for depression and anxiety,” said a study published in the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health.
Trust Your Training
Start building your confidence during your training and downtime, so your mental and physical preparedness will overpower your stress, anxiety, and doubts on race day. Confidence and success come from preparedness, so attend the event race-ready.
During training, build a solid training plan and system where you can hone your strengths and eliminate weaknesses. Then, on race day, remind yourself of all the effort, time, and energy you’ve dedicated to your training. Whenever you doubt yourself, your solid training can be a concrete reminder of the preparation you’ve done. Remind yourself that you can’t let all that go to waste.
Don’t Forget to Warm Up
Always warm up before the race begins. Warming up offers various benefits. For one, it can prevent injury and improve your performance, according to a study published in the Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation.
“Passive/active warm-ups increase adenosine triphosphate turnover, which reinforces muscular functions, muscle cross-bridge cycling rate, and oxygen uptake kinetics, which significantly affects exercise performance,” confirmed the said study.
But on top of these physical changes, warm-ups can also provide mental and emotional benefits to athletes. When you move physically and slowly raise your heart rate, you can minimize stress on your heart and relax your body and mind.
Listen to Music
Listening to music is not just a form of enjoyment. Many studies suggest that listening to music can offer mental and emotional health benefits. Listening to relaxing music, for one, can lower heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure. As such, music can instantly boost our mood, leading to the reduction of pain, stress, and anxiety.
To prove this point, here’s what Brian Harris, certified neurologic music therapist at Harvard-affiliated Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, has to say regarding the connection between music and emotions:
“There is no other stimulus on earth that simultaneously engages our brains as widely as music does. Like other pleasurable sensations, listening to or creating music triggers the release of dopamine, a brain chemical that makes people feel engaged and motivated.”
Before you begin your race and while you warm up, listen to your favorite songs or any song that can make you calm somehow. It could be pop, classical, or rock. It doesn’t have to be one genre.
Plan Your Race-Day Outfit
If you don’t know, there’s a link between clothing choices and emotional states. Research confirmed that your choice of clothes can affect your emotions and even your physical condition. It can make you comfortable or uncomfortable come race day.
One report supported by Dr. Monica Cain, a psychologist at Nightingale Hospital, the only private mental health hospital in Central London, said that “in some people, wearing tight clothing that restricts breathing or something that makes you feel hot can cause changes in the body, such as more rapid breathing that feels like panic”. This explains why many athletes with anxiety experience difficulty in breathing when they have panic attacks. Most trisuits and wetsuits tightly hug the body.
To avoid this, plan your race-day outfit weeks or days before and do training sessions with it. Be sure to choose a wetsuit or trisuit that feels comfortable and won’t affect your regular breathing pattern. For maximum comfort, pack a race-day outfit consisting of your favorite running clothes, wetsuits, and trisuits that you’ve tried on multiple times. Don’t wear anything new on race day.
Relax With Proper Breathing Techniques
As an athlete or triathlete, you must be familiar with the different breathing techniques used for running, cycling, and swimming. These techniques, luckily, can also be used to reduce stress and anxiety. At the same time, you can also try other deep breathing techniques proven to reduce anxiety before you face a stressful activity.
Harvard Health Publishing confirmed that “breath focus is a common feature of several techniques that evoke the relaxation response”, and the first step is learning to breathe deeply.
Here are some breathing techniques you can try before the race to calm your nerves:
Box / Square Breathing
This technique looks like inhaling and exhaling to the beat of a song, hence the name box breathing. You just need to exhale in the count of four, inhale in the count of four, and repeat the pattern.
Resonance breathing is the best practice in peaceful places where you can lie down. If you have a personal room or station near the race area, you can do multiple sessions of resonance breathing before the race.
The first step is to lie down and close your eyes. Then, breathe through your nose with your mouth closed for six seconds. Avoid filling your lungs with too much air. Afterward, exhale slowly for six seconds. Continue the pattern for 10 minutes.
Also known as relaxing breath, this breathing technique can clear your nervous system by sending a message to your brain to calm down. It’s best performed with your back straight and your whole body relaxed, so you can sit down or lie down.
To do the 4-7-8 breathing, breath in for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 7 seconds, and exhale for 8 seconds. When inhaling, breathe in quietly. When exhaling, make a ‘whoosh’ sound. Repeat the breathing pattern until calmness fills your body and mind.
Pursed Lip Breathing
This breathing technique is designed to make your breathing more effective in getting more air, so it offers physical and mental benefits. Pursed Lip Breathing is beneficial to people with lung conditions and anxiety.
To perform the technique, sit anywhere in a comfortable position, and relax your shoulders and neck. Inhale through your nose for two seconds while keeping your mouth closed. Then, exhale through your mouth for four seconds while keeping your mouth in a pout—like you’re giving a kiss. Keep your breath slow and steady as you exhale.
Simple Breathing Exercise
If the race is about to start and you need immediate solutions, do quick and simple breathing exercises. You can do it sitting down, lying down, or standing up—you can do it anywhere. The trick to mastering simple breathing exercises is to not force the practice but to try it over and over again until calmness overpowers your anxiety.
The first step is to inhale slowly and deeply through your nose. Keep your body relaxed, especially the shoulder and abdomen area. Then, exhale slowly through your mouth while relaxing you and pursing your lips. Do it multiple times until you relax.
Prepare a Mantra of Words of Encouragement
Friends, coaches, and family members may support you on the sideline. But during the race and between the starting and finish lines, you’re on your own. As such, you can prepare a mantra or words of encouragement. Put them in your pocket—literally or figuratively—before race day begins to help you forget all the negativity flooding your brain.
The best thing to do is to repeat those positive words or affirmations over and over again. The more you repeat them, the more naturally they’ll flood your head with positivity. This practice can slow down running thoughts, boost mental clarity, and attract peace of mind.
Focus Your Mind on Anything Other Than Your Thoughts
Your negative thoughts can ruin your mood, energy, and preparedness, so might as well throw them into the trash bin and focus on other important things. Before race day, keep your mind and body busy—but avoid activities that can make you physically tired.
You can go through your race-day stuff to see if you forgot anything important, check your race equipment, memorize the course over and over, talk to other participants, or share your day on social media. There are endless things to do on the race site if you wish to get busy and relax.
Visualize a Successful Race
The power of visualization can instantly will your body and mind to focus on the task at hand instead of your negative thoughts. Many psychological studies have proven that visualization is an effective practice that can help improve mental skills and define goals.
Visualization, according to renowned sports performance psychologist and business coach Sarah Huntley, is “one of the most well-researched mental skills in the sporting arena and, with practice, can really make the difference on race day”. With that said, visualization can not only calm your nerves and reduce anxiety, it can actually help you become a better triathlete in the long run.
If you’re new to visualization, you can immediately start it during your training and repeat the process during race day. To visualize on race day, you can start meditating in a comfortable and quiet place, such as your personal room or a small area near the race site. Close your eyes and focus your mind on you doing your absolute best at the race you’re about to compete in. Describe your vision in clear detail, paint clear emotions, and define your goals.
Accept the Feeling
If your anxiety becomes a constant feeling, just accept the nerves. Expect that you’re going to be nervous and anxious, especially if the race is huge and can define your future opportunities, and accept that fact.
However, don’t let these negative emotions ruin your performance and get the best of you. Remember that the majority of participants in the race feel the same thing. Embrace anxiety but get out of situations and thoughts that can worsen it. Take this piece of advice from Dr. Patricia Thornton, a New York City-based psychologist who specializes in anxiety disorders and OCD:
“When you can embrace anxiety and stay with situations and thoughts that make you anxious, you are retraining your brain to be less reactive to those false thoughts. This is not the easiest thing to do, but if you haven’t tried accepting your anxiety and actually asking yourself to be more anxious, try it.”
Anxiety and stress are both normal on race day—or any other day where a big event is set to happen. They can, however, affect your performance. So, you can either accept the nerves or succumb to them. You want to avoid the latter if you want a successful race. The best things to do to reduce anxiety, based on our list, are to trust your capabilities, be mentally and physically ready, define your success, and focus your energy on other important things.