Picture this: Your race is starting in 20 minutes. You’ve eaten your pre-race meal, put on your lucky socks, fastened on your bib number, warmed up and are ready to go. But somehow, you just can’t seem to calm down. Your heart is racing, your palms are sweaty and when your charming-but-clueless significant other asks whether you’re ready to go, you snap something to the effect of: “Do I look ready?!”
Yep, that’s race morning for most of us. But luckily, there are some great ways to calm your nerves that don’t involve a hit over the head with a blunt object or some kind of prescription drug. In the last year, meditation has gotten huge in the fitness world, and apps like Headspace that offer free guided meditations are becoming more and more popular with athletes. That’s because athletes and scientists are really starting to understand the role that the brain can play on your body, not just on your internal expectations. Sports psychology has been around for a while, sure, but we’re just now learning and applying the direct benefits from meditation and mantras to our training practices.
So, if you head to the starting line of a race and feel stressed out and ready to run the other way, consider adopting a race-day mantra to calm your nerves. It’s not as tough to do as a guided meditation, which calls for time, quiet space and a clearing of the mind. Rather, choosing a mantra that will make you feel motivated — and help you guide your breathing to calm your heart rate — is the key to race-day success.
When I raced Ironman Louisville six years ago, I was a mess. I was up at 2 a.m. to prep, and as it got closer to the moment I had to jump off the dock and into the murky river, I was more and more panicked. Until, that is, I looked down at my knuckles, where earlier that morning, my dad had written Kick Ass, knuckle-tattoo style.
Now, that might not seem very zen. But take a second, and try to repeat it slowly: “Kick. Ass.” If you say it slowly and pointedly enough, you’ll start adjusting your breath to it: Kick — inhale. Ass — exhale. It’s a goofy example, sure, but by the time I was midair with the water rising up to meet me, my heart rate had readjusted, and I was ready to, well, kick ass.
But it’s not just anecdotal evidence from somewhat neurotic athletes that shows how a mantra can get you ready for action. Several recent studies also back this up. One study compared the effects of yoga mantras and rosary recitations, and the results showed that both prayer and mantra “caused striking, powerful, and synchronous increases in existing cardiovascular rhythms.”
In simple terms, reciting a simple mantra caused heart rates to smooth out. Another study made the same claim: “Recitation of the rosary prayer (or of most mantras), induces a marked enhancement of these slow rhythms, whereas random verbalization or random breathing does not.”
Yet another study looking at young athletes showed that when mental training, including positive self-talk, was added to a regimen, overall performance increased, as well as athletes’ self-confidence. Not bad for just repeating a few lines!
In the last year, even journals directed at personal trainers have started featuring more content about how to mentally prep clientele for workouts and competitions. Clearly, the mental game is becoming more and more important.
Ultimately, the major benefit of the race-day mantra is to center your thoughts, lower your heart rate and steady your breathing by inhaling and exhaling in time with the mantra. It’s half-mental, half-physical in terms of benefits.
So how do you choose a race-day mantra?
It has to be right for you. It might as simple as “Go hard” or “Have fun.” Personally, I prefer a two-word mantra for the sake of timing my inhales and exhales to the words. But I know plenty of people who prefer fuller thoughts: “I’ve trained for this,” “I’m so much stronger than all these people” or “I’m ready.” Test out a few before hard workouts, especially if you’re doing a race simulation, to see which works best for you. And you don’t need to say it out loud. Especially when you’re surrounded by people at a race, you’ll probably want to keep those thoughts to yourself.
You can also use the mantra during a race, if you’re in a tough spot. I know there have been a few uphill segments of trail runs where, panting, I’ve made my way up a hill, chanting to myself in an effort to calm my nerves and get my heart rate down.
Some of you may not need to recite a mantra before every race to calm your nerves. But think of the exercise as getting in the zone pre-race. Most people have a few go-to songs they like to listen to before a race, but when there are only minutes to go before the whistle blows, isn’t it nice to have a few words that, when repeated in your head, calm you down and give you eerily clear vision of the task ahead?