“Should I go with long sleeves or short? New shoes or old?”

“Oh no… Did I print off my pace chart?”

The fear … It’s crippling.

After hundreds of miles and months of preparation, the big dance is just hours away. And you can’t sleep.

What you hoped to be a restful night, has turned into hours of squirming with anxious energy.

If this sounds like you, I’m here to say that you’re not alone. Almost every runner will admit to having at least some degree of anxiety the days and hours before a race.

It’s only natural when you’ve poured your all into something as big as a race goal.

But, as I’m sure you’ve witnessed first-hand, anxiety can negatively affect your run by:

  1. Leaving you tired and low on energy,
  2. Making it difficult to stick to a nutrition/hydration plan,
  3. Causing you to irrationally change gear or race plans,
  4. Overwhelming you with negative or discouraged thoughts before the run even begins.

Makes me depressed just writing about it, so let’s quickly move on to the good news:

Just because it’s natural doesn’t mean pre-race anxiety can’t be managed or prevented.

And so here I list the tactics I use to manage pre-race jitters. Everyone’s different, so adapt my rules to manage your own.

1) Trust Your Training (And Yourself)

More than anything else, pre-race anxiety stems from doubting your training and preparations. I’ve got news for you:

There’s nothing you can do about it now.

You have to trust that your training, miles, and hard work were sufficient, and accept that where you are now is exactly where you need to be.

2) Visualize a Successful Day

In his book, For the Love of the Game, it’s said that Michael Jordon would visualize himself sinking buzzer shots long before taking them in real life. He would feel the power of the moment, the emotion in the stadium, and the celebration of a successful swoosh, and use that visualization to gain confidence and strength for the actual game.

If you can’t see yourself having a successful race, chances are you’ll be right.

Throughout the days leading up to your race, visualize yourself moving efficiently through each mile, and crossing that finish line strong and on pace.

Those visualizations will calm your nerves, boost your attitude, and translate into real success on race day.

3) Prepare What You Can

My biggest anxiety comes from the unknowns:

  • Weather
  • Trail conditions
  • Aid station supplies

The best way I’ve found to combat those question marks is to prepare for what I can, and accept that as enough. That means packing and double checking gear, laying clothes out the night before, and studying course maps as if I’m going in for a test.

The more I take can of the things I can control, the less I worry about the things I can’t.

4) Separate Yourself from the Race

During race week, it’s easy to forget that other things exist.

I’ve found it important to purposely do things that have nothing to do with the race, as a way to get your mind off running.

  • Watch a movie with your friends or family
  • Catch up on reading
  • Take a nap
  • Enjoy a nice dinner with your partner

Sometimes it’s best to simply step away.

5) Think Ahead to Your Next Big Goal

Your goal race is the period to a long (often run-on) training sentence. With no forethought as to what comes next, there’s a lot of pressure to wrap that sentence up tight.

By having another race already picked out, or another goal to work towards, it relieves some of the pressure.

The absolute worst case becomes a learning experience to better prepare you for the next, instead of a botch training cycle you can never get back.

Don’t Let Anxiety Ruin Your Next Race

Next weekend I’m running the Sky to Summit 50k in the Georgia mountains. It’ll be my first ultramarathon since a terrible day at the Steep Canyon 50k a few months back.

Quitting felt like my only option that day, and I’ve put a lot of pressure on myself not to experience that again. The self-inflicted stress is high.

But I’m also at peace with where I am, and whatever outcome the day brings. I’m focused on the things I have control over, and releasing the things I don’t.

I trust the adjustments to my training over the past several weeks, and that the day will go, well, as it goes.

Before your next big race, I hope you’re able to take a similar approach. Maybe through the tactics listed above, or maybe through your own.

However you decide to do it, take actions to avoid and control your pre-race anxiety, before it starts to control you.

Author Doug Hay is the founder of Rock Creek Runner, host of the Trail Talk podcast, and fanatical about everything trail running -- beards, plaid shirts, bruised toenails, and all. He and his wife live and run in beautiful Black Mountain, NC.

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4 thoughts on “5 Tactics for Beating Pre-Race Anxiety

  1. Bizarrely, I’ve recently started getting “long run” anxiety- and this is not my first rodeo! I will have to try and apply some of these tips 🙂

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