From top-level racers to someone toeing the line for their first 5K, everyone deals with some level of pre-race nervousness. You might suffer from nearly debilitating nerves that make starting a race feel as terrifying as final exams in college. You might just have a few small moments of jitters that are quickly overruled by excitement. Whatever level of nerves you experience, know you’re not alone. Proper pre-race prep helps tame those nerves, but it’s hard to get rid of them entirely.
Even writing this article boosted my heart rate, as I sat at the computer and imagined the start line. But it’s absolutely possible to channel that energy and make it work for you. Here’s how to help use those jitters to fuel your race-day performance:
While sleeping well the night before a race is a great way to keep nerves at bay, it’s not a realistic expectation. So, start stockpiling your sleep a week before your race — you’ll feel much better on the start line if you know you’ve got a strong foundation of solid rest. Aim for an hour or two extra each night if possible: You’ll be much more confident on race morning if you know you’re not sleep-deprived, even if you spend a restless night heading into the race.
MAKE A WORRY LIST
Sometimes, simply knowing what our worst fears are can help us move through them — and it’s a good race strategy whether you have nerves or not, since races rarely go according to plan. After you’ve written the list of things that can possibly go wrong (stomach cramps, a missed water stop, hitting ‘the wall’), write down how you can react to each thing to move past it (proper nutrition and hydration). Often, this exercise helps you relax by showing you few problems are insurmountable. It gives you the tools you need to tackle in-race challenges, even ones you didn’t expect. And it helps you foresee and prep for avoidable challenges.
PREP YOUR PLAYLIST
Some runners need chill tunes to keep calm before the start. Some need loud, hard rock to transform nervous energy into excited energy. If you haven’t raced before, you may want to make two playlists of your favorite chill songs and favorite pump-up songs. Then, when you have a few minutes on race morning, you can listen to whichever playlist feels right.
HANDLE YOUR RACE DAY SUPPORT CREW
If you’re bringing family and friends to the race, it’s a good idea to have a discussion beforehand about what you’re hoping they’ll provide for you. Do you want them to be cheering you on in the morning and giving you pep talks, or would you prefer more solitude? Some people thrive and find their nerves disappear when they’re surrounded by family, while others find all the noise and responsibilities add to their nervous energy in a bad way. Think about what you want and be clear: Your family is coming along to support you, so let them know what the best support is.
SURVEY THE SCENE
If you can get to the race site the day before, check out the start and go over the first few hundred meters of the course so you know exactly what to expect. Scope where the bathrooms are, where your family will be standing if they’re cheering for you, where you’ll park — all the small details make race morning less stressful once you know your plan. If you can’t get to the site, most races post tons of valuable information on the race website.
VISUALIZE KEEPING YOUR COOL
If you have bad pre-race jitters, even imagining the start line ups your heart rate. Visualize getting to the race, waiting at the start and, finally, the whistle blowing and your race taking off. Going through this exercise a few times, trying to control your breathing and paying attention to your pulse can help you get out some of the nerves, or at least, let you know how it’s going to feel on the start line so you’re not quite as shocked on race morning.
CONTROL THE CONTROL-ABLES
If you can pick up your bib number the day before and pin it on your singlet, do so. Have your nutrition — from breakfast to in-race food if you need it — laid out next to your clothes. Have your shoes ready to go. Basically, try to be so prepared you can operate on auto-pilot in the morning and not add extra stress by needing to hunt down your car keys. Do this well ahead of bedtime, so you don’t stress yourself out right before you sleep.
STAY IN ROUTINE
The night before your race isn’t the time to try a new sleeping aid, start wearing earplugs, a sleep mask or adopt a new bedtime ritual. Rather, do what you’ve done every other night: Get ready for bed in the usual way, or as close to normal as possible, even if you’re staying in a hotel. (You can work on dialing in your pre-race sleep the weeks before by getting used to a sleep mask and earplugs if you know you’ll be staying in a noisy area, and you can practice with different sleep aids as well — just don’t fall into the trap of trying something new in the name of good sleep on race night.)
GIVE YOURSELF EXTRA TIME ON RACE-MORNING
Things like eating breakfast may take longer because food holds little appeal when you’re nervous, and you’ll likely be lining up at the port-a-potty over and over again (pre-race poops are a very real thing, just ask any seasoned racer). Giving yourself a little extra time to eat, get to the race and stand in line at the bathroom for numerous visits, can help lessen nerves and save you from the added stress of being late.
THINK EXCITED, NOT SCARED
The difference between excited and scared is very small on a physical level. On a mental level, the two feel like polar opposites. But if you can recast those jittery feelings as being excited to race, not freaked out, you’ll be able to use that rush of hormones to push off the start line with some bonus speed.
REMEMBER, IT’S TEMPORARY
Even in the longest of ultramarathons, the fact you’re on the start line means you’re closer to the finish line than you’ve ever been for this race. You’re already almost there — and pretty soon, it’ll all be over and you’ll actually miss it. So enjoy this moment or at least revel in the fact that it’s practically already over.