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Race Anxiety – How to Get Pumped, not Panicked

Many of us in the Still I Run community take on our daily lives while also struggling with the challenges and exhaustion of living with an anxiety disorder. As runners, the fact that pre-race anxiety is also quite common among the general population would seem to be adding insult to injury. Yet, with an assist from some applied Sport Psychology principles, here are some techniques that I have found to be beneficial both for myself and for many of the wonderful runners that I work with who have toed the start line for hundreds of races despite it all.

One thing is certain—Although our fear, anxiety, and dread are all very real, one of the positive consequences of anxiety is an increase in effort and preparation, which can result in optimal performance. Too much anxiety, however, can interfere with preparation efforts and result in changes in muscle tension, inefficient activity, difficulty making decisions, negative focus, and ultimately, reduced enjoyment and self-confidence. Since pre-performance stress is a natural occurrence, the goal is to manage this stress so that it enhances your performance.

Strategies and Techniques for Dealing with Race Anxiety

Re-examine Your Philosophy of Athletic Participation

Reviewing your foundational beliefs can help to put your race in perspective and give a deeper meaning to your reasons for pursuing excellence. Remind yourself often of “why” you chose to take on any given endeavor, and of the many ways in which you’ve successfully responded to that “why” question.

Develop a Relaxation Ritual

Recognize when your thoughts and feelings are creating unwanted tension, and take several mini-relaxation breaks during the day to avoid a big increase in muscle tension. Consider using progressive muscle relaxation to reduce physical anxiety and insomnia in the days leading up to a race or other important event. One effective method is to first tense a muscle group and then relax it, traveling down all muscle groups from head to toe. The contrast between increased tension and relaxation improves awareness of tension and facilitates the relaxation response. Typically, the three or four days before your race, and the wait time in the starting corrals can be difficult, so it’s helpful to have a strategy in place that you can automatically tap into without having to make any decisions in the moment.

Another relaxation technique for race anxiety is an outward focus, which consists of shifting from excessive internal focus to specific events or items on the outside.  You may find it difficult to stop worrying, but you can learn to focus on something else for a while. Pre-competition routines (the same warm-up routine, or the same pre-race breakfast, e.g.) can often accomplish this function, as you learn to focus on a specific aspect of a task as a diversion.

Use Simulation Training in Training/ Practice

Throughout your training cycle, replicate, and incorporate many of the exact conditions that you will face in your upcoming event to help you to adapt to similar conditions on the day of the event. For an athletic event, for example, choose to simulate a variety of weather conditions, race hydration, refueling techniques, specific types of terrain, race day pacing, etc.

Avoid Over-Emotionalizing about the Upcoming Performance

Take a composed approach to your race by focusing on things you can control—proper execution of your running form, nutrition, pacing and rest, for example.  It’s also helpful to establish several goals for the same event; i.e. a time goal range, plus a personal enjoyment goal, plus a learning goal.  Having several event day goals can help to avoid the stress associated with focusing solely on performance outcomes. Focus on the “process” of performance and recognize the event setting as an opportunity: to be with friends and teammates, for example, to work toward personal goals, to travel or to experience the support of family, friends, and coaches while having fun along the way.

Use Visualization or Mental Rehearsal to Anticipate and Prepare for Competition

Rather than worrying about what will happen once the event begins, you can picture yourself in various performance situations. Consistently rehearse in your mind an effective response to the “what ifs” of performance.

Use Thought Stopping and Replacement to Develop Pre-Performance Arousal Control

Create a thought-stopping cue (word/phrase/image) and insert this as soon as you catch yourself saying/feeling negative statements that contribute to anxiety. You can then either immediately replace each negative statement with a more constructive one that will motivate and relax you. Or develop a “neutral” thought before you transition from a negative one to a helpful one.  Switching to an external focus and using deliberate breathing are some ways to make that transition smoother. Practice this skill in training until it becomes automatic for you.

Surround Yourself with a Calm and Confident Support Group

Being around supportive, positive people will provide you with emotional support as your event draws closer.  Coaches, family, friends, colleagues, and teammates can all provide emotional security, encouragement, and reassurance. Remind yourself that it’s OK to have butterflies just as long as they fly in formation!

My thought is that birds of a feather fly together…I feel that the SIR community is united in our pain, and we’re united in our many successes.  Let’s keep flying out there…Confidently, successfully, and together.


By Pam Landry

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