Everyone experiences the effects of race day nervousness. Even the most experienced athletes are not impervious to some race morning jitters. It’s part of competition among others and against yourself. Whether you know it or not, it is the individual (you) who allows the race day nerves to control their destiny. For some, the nervousness of race morning can be the driving force that leads to their absolute best possible race result, while for others it can lead to a crippling heap of self-doubt, resulting in a sub-par performance at best.
It Starts with Preparation
Your training leading up to any event is what will provide you with the fitness to attain the reasonable goals that you set for yourself at the beginning of your season. Successful athletes also use their consistency in their training to fuel confidence in their ability on race morning. They realize their successes in training will lead to similar outcomes in their race. This breeds a sense of calm and assurance when they toe the start line.
Developing short, medium and long term, achievable goals can also reduce stress on race morning. Shy away from only setting one, nearly impossible goal for a single season. Success often takes time to develop, just like your fitness. It doesn’t happen overnight and doesn’t come without lots of hard work.
Be Positive & What You Can’t Control Doesn’t Matter
Do you ever get nervous before a big training day? Perhaps a little, but you likely don’t have the same concerns on your mind during a long training session that you do at a race. What’s different? You’re still swimming, biking &/or running, just like in your trainings. Race morning is where all the “what if’s” creep into your consciousness. What if I get a flat tire? What if I don’t perform my best? What if it’s really windy? What if I get my goggles kicked off? What if I blow up on the run? What if I start to cramp? If you begin your race thinking that you are going to fail, then you will. Guaranteed. Abolish negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones. Tell yourself “I’m going to have my best swim (bike, run, race) ever.” “I’m fit and ready for this challenge.” “I’ve put in all the time and miles in training to be successful.” “This race is just like a training day, except I have 2500 of my closest friends accompanying me on the journey.”
You can also combat the “what if’s” by only concerning yourself with that which you have direct control over. This begins months prior to race day with your training and being consistent with your workout sessions (see above). Once at the race venue, be sure you have developed your nutrition & hydration plan, your pacing strategy, where you are starting the race from in the group, being certain that your bike is well maintained and prepped so the likelihood of any mechanical failure is minimized. My top tip for race morning is to not be concerned with what others are doing. Focus on yourself, what you need to do, and what is in your direct control to have a successful event.
Utilizing visualization techniques in the weeks leading up to your event has been proven to increase chances of success. This is especially true for longer events, where there is a greater importance on your mental toughness to achieve your goals. Go through the entire race in your mind and seeing yourself finishing strong & being triumphant. To make best use of visualization, try to preview the start line, race route and finish area, even if it is via simple pictures from the race website. You can then spend 5-10 minutes before going to sleep to run the race in your mind. For those doing a triathlon, envision your swim start and “feeling” what the effort is like as you progress through the course. Picture yourself exiting the water and running into T1 to transition to the bike. Then run through a successful bike leg, with good pacing and nutrition/hydration throughout leading into T2 with energy to spare. You can then focus your attention to a solid run, where you follow your pacing and nutrition plan before crossing the finish line. Visualization is effective because it teaches you to focus, keeping your mind from wandering and allowing you to effectively follow your race plan. Your mind can be your greatest ally or your biggest enemy. It is up to you to decide which mentality you bring to the start line.
Closely behind a solid preparation for your event, gaining race specific experience can greatly reduce the nervousness you experience. I call this the elimination of the unknown. If you have experienced the race course prior to race day, even if only during training or a pre-race drive around the race route, it reduces stress because you know what to expect. In addition, any previous racing provides a learning experience that stays with you for your entire athletic career. Having survived a mass swim start will make the next one that much easier, mentally and physically. Learn from your training sessions and each race you complete and carry the confidence that generates to the next one.
Putting it All Together
Nerves are good, as it shows a sign of respect for the course and distance of a particular event. Too many nervous thoughts, though, can completely ruin what would otherwise be a very positive race. To achieve a greater opportunity for success, arrive at your next race being physically AND mentally prepared to deal with any situation that can present itself. Use your past experiences to create a sense of calm and confidence at the start line. Eliminate any negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones and visualize your success often to achieve greater success in the future.