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How to calm race-day nerves: staying cool before a race

How to calm race-day nerves: staying cool before a race

We’ve all been there: it’s the night before a race, and your brain will. Not. Let. You. Sleep. Maybe it’s your first race (or your fiftieth) and you’re feeling wired–but not in the good way. Your nerves just won’t let you sleep. I myself have had so many of these nights before important races: my body (or, my anxious brain, I guess) wakes me up at 2:00 am, or maybe 4:00 am, and refuses to let me get any more precious shut-eye. So, I toe the starting line with just a couple of hours of sleep under my belt. 

This is completely normal: our brains kick into high-gear the night before a race because they recognize how much effort we’ve put into preparing for the race. The closer that we get to the race start, the more neurotic our brains become. 

While this is common, it doesn’t have to be normal. Throughout my years of racing, I’ve nailed down some ways of reducing my own nervousness before a race, and am here to share the anxiety-reducing wealth. 

One of the best ways to keep your nerves at bay is to come up with, implement and focus on a pre-race routine.

You can practice this in your daily training, too: if you train in the morning, try to wake up and “automatically” start doing 3-4 different pre-training activities (e.g. brush your teeth, make some coffee, eat your breakfast, listen to the news. You get the idea.) You can do this while training, and also on race day itself. Feeling comfortable and familiar in your morning routine is the key to feeling “at peace,” and can help you forget that race day is the “big day.” It’s sort of like going into a trance, a zen-zone where you float through the motions and forget that you’re about to race.

Secondly, we need to look our fears straight in the face. Working on our pre-race anxiety–like any form of anxiety–requires that we try to understand why we’re anxious.

This means identifying where our anxiety originates–and if we can’t find a place from which or a reason why they exist, that means that they don’t deserve our energy. In this case, it means we can–and should–let go of that specific worry. 

When I have an important race, I categorize my nerves in levels. Firstly, I look at my terrain-related fears. Some races have a section that’s dangerous or tricky…like a glacier crossing or a super-rocky pass. In these cases, it’s normal to be nervous–and honestly, I’ve always believed that fear helps us stay alert in tough situations. In a race like Els2900 where the terrain is super technical and dangerous, thinking of and focusing on each step individually helped me to manage my anxiety. With Els2900, the other key is that it was a team race–which meant that running together with my partner Max was also a huge anxiety-reliever.

After those obvious fear-based nerves, then come the smaller worries: will everything work out like I’ve planned during the race? Will I have stomach problems? Will my legs hold up correctly, will I be able to go to the bathroom (super-key, let’s be honest.) Will my mind be sharp? These smaller–yet equally real–fears feel especially tangible to me, because I’ve  experienced all of the above at least once (or all at once) during a race. Since we can’t always control this stuff, the best way to deal is to accept each of these things as they come, if they come. We won’t make a stomach problem less likely by worrying about it in advance. Accept the situation as it comes, and control what you can control. 

The key is to identify and name your anxiety. Then, you can confront it…and eventually, maybe you can even work with it. Roll with those punches. 

For the list-lovers out there, here’s a quick run-down of my personal pre-race anxiety relievers. 

  • Feeling nervous about catching a cold or getting sick before a race: the real answer is just to take care of ourselves as much as possible in the days before a race. Eat well, rest well, hydrate well–and if there’s someone around you who’s sick, maybe don’t spend tons of time with them right before race day. 
  • Feeling nervous about the race route or technicality: here, the best thing to do is to study the route and understand its most dangerous/technical passes. If you’re lucky enough to be on-course before race day, you can also scout the route to practice the areas that make you nervous. Regardless, understanding the routes–even just by studying them from afar in advance–allows us to think critically about how we’ll navigate them, which in turn makes us more calm. 
  • Problems sleeping the night before a race: I actually consider the most important night of sleep to be two nights before the race. This is because I know myself, and it’s probable that I’ll have an awful night of sleep right before the race itself. So, for example, if the race starts on Saturday morning, the most important night of sleep is actually Thursday night. Thursday night is your night: sleep as much as you can, and then if you manage to get any sleep on Friday night, it’s like “bonus” hours.
  • Feeling nervous about your race result: right now, I run professionally. This means that the pressure that I feel (and put on myself) can be high. But putting pressure on our race results doesn’t help calm our nerves at all–so the best thing to do is to focus on one phrase: “the work is already done.” This means that we have to respect the work and effort we’ve put into training for a race, and then face the race itself with the best attitude possible. This helps a lot. Besides, even if everything goes wrong and we have a bad race, at least we’re spending a day out on the trails in the mountains–and a day out in the mountains is never a bad day.

At the end of the day, we also have to remember that if we’re well-prepared and have trained thoroughly with guidance and discipline, everything is much more likely to work out positively than negatively. We can exhale, and remind ourselves that we’ve done all the work we can, and that now it’s time to be kind to ourselves mentally and let go of anxiety. I mean, if we’re about to run a race for which we haven’t trained or prepared, of course we have to be honest with ourselves–if our pre-race effort hasn’t been proportional to how we want to perform, we might have to accept that we’ll be gambling a little bit on our results. 

I really believe in putting things into perspective, or trying to assign less importance to things as a way of calming my nerves. Plus, I have to remember that I’ve enjoyed the training process leading up to a race–so, even if everything goes wrong on race day, I’ve still enjoyed and bettered myself in the months of training. In the end, there are an endless number of races, and if you’re well-trained but have a bad race, there can always be a Plan B race to look towards. 

Identify your anxiety. Remember that the work is already done. Appreciate the beauty of the trails and the mountains around you. No matter what, you’re in for a good day out, and that’s always a win.

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