Jeff Gaudette—A runner who is scared to race sounds like an amusing anecdote one might read in a children’s book. If you’ve been in the sport long enough, however, you’ve undoubtedly had a running friend who was scared to race, or you’ve been stricken with racing anxiety yourself.
Pre-race anxiety and nerves are a normal part of training and racing. Whether it’s the experienced veteran who’s nervous about running a new PR, or a marathon rookie just worried about surviving the distance, nerves add excitement to a race, which, in turn, helps add to the thrill of racing.
Unfortunately, sometimes runners can sometimes take those nerves too far and develop a paralyzing fear of racing. This might happen after a string of bad races, a long layoff due to injury, or lack of confidence in your fitness and a fear of “embarrassing” yourself. Regardless, when these fears take hold, pre-race anxiety becomes more than just nervous energy; it can derail your performances and suck all the fun out of racing.
If the fear of racing has stricken you or a running friend, you’re not alone. It’s a common ailment that can strike even the most confident of runners. If you’re dreading your next race or find yourself consistently underperforming because of lack of confidence, here are four surefire remedies to get you back on track.
1. Use Races as Training Runs
One of the best ways to combat nerve-induced underperformace at races is to make the act of racing itself a more enjoyable experience by taking the pressure off yourself.
This is, of course, easier said than done. Normally, a race is a big event that requires financial and logistical sacrifices. All your training has been targeted toward performing well in this one event. These factors build up the race in your mind, so much so that it often becomes a huge stress, especially if you’ve struggled in your last few races.
Therefore, you need to reprogram your mind to associate racing with stress-free, exciting and positive moments. The best way to accomplish this is to enter small, local road races and enjoy the experience of running without big crowds. Wake up in your own bed, be comfortable in your surroundings, and envision yourself on one of your usual training runs with hundreds of people cheering for you.
How to Execute:
Head to your local running store (they often have information about events in your area) or look online for some low-key 5K or 10K races. Pick a few races that are easy to get to and won’t have huge crowds. Pencil them in on your training schedule. Then, swap your mid-week and use the race as your weekend workouts, or just make the race part of your weekly long run.
This won’t compromise your long-term training plan, but will allow you to show up at a race not worried about having to set a PR (that’s not the goal for the training run), which helps you begin to recondition your mind to relax about the race atmosphere.
2. Simulate Race Conditions in Training
The second strategy for overcoming racing demons is similar to the tactic of using races as training runs; rather than use races as training, you treat a few of your most difficult workouts as race simulations.
This approach will also help you identify the root cause of your racing fears. By comparing what gives you trouble in your race simulation with what gives you trouble during an actual race, you can take steps to work harder on correcting your weaknesses.
For example, if you approach the workout worried that you won’t hit the prescribed paces, it’s evident that your race fears are caused by pressure to perform and lack of confidence. If this is the case, you can also implement the fourth strategy in this article—focus on competing, not times (more on that in a bit).
Likewise, if it’s the general atmosphere or logistics of your race simulation that has you dreading your upcoming run, you should focus on constructing a repeatable and comfortable pre-race routine, as described in the next section.
How to Execute:
Executing the race simulation tactic is fairly easy. Simply recreate as much of the race environment as you can on your own (n.b. this is a good strategy for any big race, even if you’re not hesitant about racing).
This means having your usual pre-race dinner, waking up early and eating a healthy breakfast, and wearing the same outfit you plan to race in. You can also try to simulate the course or join a local group run to simulate social pressure, if that’s an issue for you. Basically, you’re looking to recreate the entire race experience in an effort to work out the nerves.
Pick one key workout every two weeks as a race simulation session. Choosing to do a race simulation more than this often takes some of the edge off the strategy, which reduces its effectiveness.
3. Develop a Routine in Training
If you’ve tried simulating a race in training and have found that the logistics, pre-race nerves and hoopla of the race are what trigger your anxiety, work on developing a routine that helps you focus on race morning. Similarly, if you’ve used races as training runs and you’ve gotten to the point where you can at least show up to the race and feel relaxed, the next step is getting to the starting line with your nerves intact and confidence high.
Building this confidence comes from developing a specific and repeatable pre-race routine in training. Generally, people get worked up about the outcome of events they cannot control. Therefore, you need to keep your focus on the elements you can control, like a familiar warm-up routine. Implementing this tactic before a race helps put your mind in a comfort zone with a familiar routine that has worked many times in training and keeps you calm, cool and collected on the starting line.
How to Execute:
During your workouts, mimic the warmup you plan to do before your big race. For example, run easily for 10-15 minutes, stretch any muscles that are sore or tight, do a few quick strides and be ready to go. On race day, implement this exact same routine and instead of focusing on your nerves, the other runners around you, or the general excitement surrounding the race, concentrate on executing your familiar warm-up.
4. Ditch The Watch and Stop Over-thinking.
The final way to get over your fear of racing is also the easiest to implement: get back to basics and stop over-thinking your race.
The most common reason runners struggle mentally with racing is that they get too caught up in the minute details of the race, especially the ones they can’t control. Typically, the mistake of over-thinking is centered around pace—hitting specific splits or running a certain goal time—but it can also be triggered by weather, course terrain, shoe decisions, or concerns about running with perfect form. Interestingly, the more a runner struggles in a series of races, the more heavily they tend to focus on these details, which usually snowballs and psyches them right out of the race.
The main objective at any race should be to give 100% effort — at the end of the day, that’s all you can control and it’s all you should focus on. The solution almost seems too simple to be true, but it’s by far the most effective strategy if you find yourself consistently underperforming in races.
How to Execute:
As the saying goes, “simple ain’t easy.” The same principle applies to not over-thinking your race and getting back to basics. At your next race (preferably a tune-up race as suggested earlier) throw away the watch, heart-rate monitor, concerns about weather or running with the perfect form, and just run by effort.
Focus on finding the right effort for you on that day and then maintain it from start to finish. When you finally turn off the obsession with pace, weather, and other elements you can’t control, you learn to listen to your body and focus 100 percent on giving your best effort, which is all that matters when you cross the finish line.
If you’re dreading your next race or find yourself consistently underperforming because of a lack of confidence, try implementing one, some, or all four of these tactics over the next few weeks and you’ll quickly get over your mental racing hurdle.