Female In Focus: Tips On How To Overcome Race Day Anxiety

* An athlete fist bumps her coach after a strong performance at The Penn Relays this week in Philadelphia

Photo Credit: David Nguyen/MileSplit

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by Jessica Stratton -  Female in Focus

Note: Jessica Stratton is a Registered Nurse. Any advice she provides in this column is a result of a long career in cross country, and as a distance runner. If you or someone you know needs help, please seek a clinical nutritionist, sports psychologist or professional. 

    My personal bests to this day were run in races where I did not care how I did.

    It may seem counterintuitive, but the most success in my career came when I went into a race with no expectations.

    Race day anxiety can be debilitating and I know a lot of people struggle with it. Up until the very end of my running career, I had races where I crumbled under the pressure I put on myself. It's such a hard feeling to talk about because when you put in all the work, the last thing you want is to sabotage yourself when it comes time to perform.

    Although it varies by the individual, I would argue that somewhere between 70-90-percent of racing is mental.

    While this could scare you, it could also empower you. Ultimately, only the athlete decides that. In the meantime, I'd like to provide you with all of the tools I have gathered throughout my running career. These things have helped me overcome race day anxiety and reduce pressure I put on myself to perform. 

    Tips to Take the Pressure Off Of Yourself and Reduce Race Day Anxiety

    • Remember that you've already put in all of the workTrust the work. You've done the hard part, now it is just time to go out there and let the work shine.
    • Try to see the race as a challenge not a performance. Performing might intimidate some. But challenges can excite you. Reframing the race as a mental challenge help you make the race feel like it's a game. 
    • Excitement feels the same as anxiety. This can be LIFE ALTERING to learn! Excitement and anxiety can often times feel the same in our bodies. Both activate our sympathetic nervous system, which can cause an increased heart rate, nerves, sweating, etc. If we can change the narrative and tell ourselves that we are excited rather than anxious, it's a great way to channel the nerves into something positive and exciting!
    • Decide BEFORE you even get to the meet what you want to accomplishOften times, understanding the environment of a track meet can be half the battle of managing it. Some meets can be overstimulating at best and intimidating at their worst. At least for me, I could never get myself to think straight surrounded by constant noise, movement and competitors circling around me. It is important to think about the race before you get to this environment and make the decision then about what you believe you can accomplish. It's easy to look at your competitor warming up next to you and get intimidated, but when you've already pre-decided what you are going to go out there and do, suddenly your competitors don't matter. You've created a barrier against the noise.
    • Have a set routineRoutines help you feel somewhat in control and I think having a pre-race routine is always important to calm the nerves and bring you to a place of comfort. Think about what makes you feel calm and at peace and try to incorporate that into your routine. Some people like to get hyped up before a race, but personally I think being in a place of peace is much more comforting to me and gets me in a much better headspace to prepare for a race.
    • Let go of an outcome oriented mindsetOutcomes put WAY too much pressure on us. I'm not discouraging you from setting a goal for your race, but we need to find ways to take the pressure off of ourselves. I've seen so many athletes -- including myself -- absolutely destroy themselves over trying to achieve a certain place or time, and it NEVER gets them to where they want to go. You have to find a way to enjoy the process of a race and let go of the outcome. Gripping an outcome too tightly gives negative energy towards it. We need to give positive energy towards the race by not forcing an outcome upon ourselves and creating a debilitating amount of pressure. We need to try to embrace the race as an opportunity.
    • Self talk: I get to, not have toYour self talk is vital. Again, you have to give positive energy toward the race. One of the first ways to re-frame self talk is to tell yourself, "You get to do this, you don't have to do this." That mantra always grounded me; it reminds me that I chose to be here.

    To conclude, a lot of these tips are mental tricks, and I truly believe the difference between you and the person next to you is not who is more fit, but who is mentally tougher.

    Applying some or all of these tools will most definitely give you advantages over those who show up with race day anxiety or debilitating expectations for themselves.