8 Expert Tips for Calming Race-Day Nerves

A mental performance coach offers advice to help runners quiet anxious thoughts on race day


If you’re among the large group of runners gearing up for big spring marathon (like the Boston Marathon or the Virgin Money London Marathon, for example), you might be dealing with a slight case of nervousness and maybe even a little bit of anxiety as you wrap up your final days of training and begin to prepare for race day.

You did everything right; from following your training to plan to fueling properly and making a race-day checklist that you’ve now gone over what seems like hundreds of times, but you still can’t seem to shake that nervous feeling.

Did I train enough? What if I hit the wall? I’m worried I won’t get enough sleep the night before the race.

If thoughts like these seem to be buzzing around in your head, don’t worry: you’re not alone.

However, it is a good idea to silence them so that you can bring your mental A game to the starting line when race day arrives.

Need help quieting your anxious mind? Holiday Inn’s Rest & Run expert elite mental performance coach Andy Barton offers the following tips to help runners around the world calm their race-day nerves.

1. The power of enjoying yourself.
Barton says:
“One thing people can do when they are taking on a challenge such as a marathon is to start taking it a bit too seriously and forgetting about the fun side of their activity. They think that the only way to improve is to be serious and they pile pressure on themselves and get frustrated when things don’t go to plan. We are actually far more resourceful when we are happy; we have greater energy, we think more clearly, we sleep longer and even digest our food better. Just putting a smile on your face can make a significant difference in the way you feel before and during a race. Ensure you find the fun in what you are doing and you are far more likely to stay with training and get better results.”

2. Tell the world
Barton says:
“You may be tempted to keep your goals for the marathon to yourself. Research, however, shows a real benefit to sharing your goals with as many people as possible, partly as there is an incentive to avoid the embarrassment of not achieving it once you have told them, but also because it helps to increase motivation, focus and energy towards training and the event itself. One of the great benefits of social media is that you can share your goal and your progress with all of your friends at the click of a button. You also have the added benefit of getting positive support as you gradually increase your training regime and reach new milestones. So, if you have a goal in mind, make sure you tell everyone.”

3. A question is the answer.
Barton says:
“Although people often use such declarative statements as 'I will do it' as a means to motivate themselves to perform, research carried out by psychologists Ibrahim Senay and Dolores Albarracin suggests that such statements actually have the opposite effect to what is intended. Often, these statements sound like obligations and we don’t like doing things we are obliged to do, do we? Interestingly, the psychologists found that people are more likely to motivate themselves to train if they used a question rather than a statement. People who say to themselves 'shall I go for a run?' instead of 'I shall go for a run' feel that they have a choice, and so embrace their decision to exercise in a far more positive way. So, next time you want to get motivated don’t tell yourself —ask yourself instead.”

4. Take control of your inner coach.
Barton says: “One of the things that can have a massively detrimental effect on our performance is that mean, hyper-critical and pessimistic inner voice that creeps up on us when we need it least. It’s the voice that tells us that we are ‘no good’ and that we ‘can’t do it.’ The problem is we tend to believe what the critical voice says to us. I often ask clients what they would do if they had a coach who spoke to them the way that they speak to themselves. Nearly always they say they would sack the coach. So next time you find your inner coach speaking to you in a negative way, sack it. Then replace it with a voice which is positive, encouraging and motivating and notice how your attitude changes towards your running.”

5. Mental pain relief.
Barton says: “I have worked with a lot of distance runners over the years, and one of the main issues that they mention is the pain that they experience when they are competing. Pain is an inevitable factor when you are putting your body through over 26 miles of hard running, but there are ways that you can minimize it. Firstly, actually changing the word from ‘pain’ to something more tolerable such as ‘discomfort’ or ‘a niggle’ can make a real difference to how you perceive it. Pain is highly subjective and we tend to feel it more if we expect to feel it. Secondly, when people experience pain—or, I should say ‘discomfort’—they tend to let their heads drop so they are looking at the ground as they run. By looking down at the ground, you can start to become more internal and actually end up focusing more on the pain which just makes it worse. By keeping your eyes up and expanding your vision, you become more externally focused and it’s much easier to distract yourself from any niggles that may develop.”

6. Focus on the positive.
Barton says: “When we are worried, anxious, fearful or in a generally negative mood, we tend to speak to ourselves using negative statements such as ‘don’t be nervous,’ ‘don’t worry’ or ‘don’t mess this up.’ Unfortunately, our minds can’t actually process negatives so we end up focusing on the thing that we don’t want to happen, effectively programming ourselves to do things badly. If you have ever been carrying a tray of drinks and someone has said ‘don’t spill them’ you will understand how this makes you more likely to spill them. Give yourself positive instructions such as ‘stay calm,’ ‘be confident’ or ‘go for it’ and you give yourself a better chance of success in your running.”

7. Fire up your imagination.
Barton says:
“One way of exploiting your imagination is to use mental rehearsal techniques to train the mind and body to perform successfully. When we imagine performing a skill, we fire up an almost identical pattern of neural responses to when we are actually performing the skill itself. By imagining yourself in the process of running the marathon you can train your brain to be more prepared for the race, so that it feels like it’s something you have already achieved. In fact, our imagination is so powerful that studies have shown that just by mentally rehearsing having a workout in the gym you can increase your muscle mass. If you want to be fitter, faster and stronger on your run, all you have to do is use a little imagination.”

8. Stay in the present.
Barton says:
“Athletes perform at their best when they are in a state of flow or ‘in the zone.’ This is a state where running feels easy and effortless. We get in the zone when we are performing and trusting our unconscious, learned skills without any self-consciousness, when we are free of distractions, fears and concern of the consequences of our actions. To get into the zone, it is essential for the mind to be in the present. Marathon runners can often find themselves out of the present, focusing on the future, about how far they have to go and what time they are going to run, or looking back to the past and worrying about whether they have done enough training and whether they have started at the right pace. If you just focus on what is in front of you, enjoy the crowds, the atmosphere and even focus on your breathing, you are more likely to get into the zone.”

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