Reader to Reader: Race-day nerves

How do you deal with race-day nerves? Here are your suggestions


Posted: 9 July 2007
by Catherine Lee


Butterflies in your stomach, waves of nausea and a dry, prickly mouth – sound depressingly familiar?

Well, for this week’s questioner, enough is enough - she wants to know how she can nip her race-day anxieties in the bud and get on with enjoying the task in hand. Can you help her find her way to a worry-free racing career?

"I know I get nervous before things - I used to have terminal stage fright at school and was always sick before going on stage. I still get nervous before big events, and so, when it comes to running, I get that same feeling from the moment I wake up. I feel sick and don't want to eat, although I know I've got to eat else I won’t run well. Do you get these feelings too? How do you deal with them? Do they ever go away?" Helenliz

Your best answers

  • Over-the-counter remedies can ease the physical symptoms
    It’s nice to know I am not the only one who suffers with pre-race nerves. I too have to go to the toilet several times before a race, which has the tendency to leave me hungry and lethargic. I now take a diarrhoea-relief capsule when I wake up and this seems to do the trick! – Calf Strain
  • Learn to control your breathing
    I've been physically sick on many occasions. No idea why I get it so bad, even when I know I've trained for the event and am capable of completing it. Breathing into a paper bag slowly has helped ease the sickness a few times though. – Cinders
  • Here comes the science bit...
    It's not nerves, it's just a fight or flight reaction to stress or anxiety you are feeling about the race. Your digestion is slowing down - hence the dry mouth and butterflies - but your breathing should be speeding up, your heart rate increasing and sugar and fat pouring into the blood. Good things if you are racing. – CC(O)C(=O)O
  • It might be a cliché but believe in mind over matter
    Use the nerves to your advantage. At the moment you want flight - what am I doing here? - turn it around and channel it into fight. You’ve trained for the event, you know your body can do it. Show it. Some prefer solitude (I’m going to race and beat a PB), others a more social event (I’m going with some running chums to make event of it). Find which one suits you. – Tri-Taffia
  • Participation is an underrated measure of success
    When you are nervous at the start line, just take a moment and ask yourself why? It might seem strange, but what are you actually nervous about? In a race at a normal level, you cannot fail. Get round, even by walking, and you have succeeded. – Coops10
  • Focus on what you have achieved, not what you might not
    On the one hand you crave success - to run a great time - and on the other hand you fear failure and the ridicule that might bring. You don't want to let others down and you don't want to let yourself down. When I ran at school I was a contender to win races. I was physically sick back then, overwhelmed by anxiety. It was very unpleasant. But now, as I have no chance of winning I just run my own race and try to improve my best times but also to enjoy it. Try adopting a lighter approach - in a sense you cannot fail. Just turning up and doing a race is a good achievement in itself. – Jonathan Burke
  • Imagine your worst-case scenario, then find the silver lining
    I sometimes don’t know why we put ourselves through it all. I too feel a wee bit sick before a race. I suppose it’s the fear of letting myself down. I had to walk bits of the marathon (my worst fear), so I guess after that, what am I afraid of? Walking wasn’t even that bad, as I got to soak up the atmosphere more. – upforalaugh
  • Emotions can easily override logic
    Having a positive outlook helps a bit but doesn't get rid of the nerves altogether – it’s an emotional response rather than a logical one I guess. We all have different reasons for nervousness - I do know that one of mine is fear of disappointment in myself, especially if I don't do as well as last time. Though that happens quite often and it’s never as bad as I think its going to be... – *jen
  • Nerves are a natural side-effect of personal expectation
    If I feel I haven't done my best, I feel that I’ve failed. Plus I am frustrated by my inability to run better so it's always a disappointment. Yes change my expectation but... I can't. I can be logical and accept that I will run at a particular pace and finish, but it won't stop me wishing that I could do better and worrying that I might do worse. – Mrs Pig
  • Practice makes perfect
    I always get a few butterflies on race days, which I think is a good thing if you can keep them under control. It all adds to the adrenaline rush that makes racing better than training. Recently my big solution to the nerves problem is this: do more races. I've found that in previous years when I've only done a handful of races, there's been a lot of pressure (self-imposed but we all do it) on myself to get a good time. This year I've already done far more races than in any previous year, and I tend to go out with a more relaxed attitude because if things don't quite go right, there's always next time. It also means I set my targets more conservatively, depending on how I feel on the day, rather than picking out a target time two months before the race. – Martin Pace
  • Re-train your brain to aid relaxation
    I try to think of the sensations pre-race as excitement, rather then nerves. I imagine that my nervous system is giving me lots of energy to run a good race. Concentrating on that really helps and makes the experience positive, rather than negative. You can also develop rituals that relax you before a race. I race a great deal (though slowly) and tend to do exactly the same things before each race – same breakfast, same way of travelling, same warm-up etc. This way, the body and mind feel that what is to come is predictable, and this helps relaxation. Listening to music that you love prior to the race may help. The final thing that I can think of is to get loads of sleep in the lead up to a race. – Dalya
  • Forget about the "audience" and look after number one
    As a violinist in my teens, I found the best way of coping with performance nerves was to talk to the audience so that, psychologically, I “humanised” them. As a performer, you can perceive your audience as a group of critics who will notice only mistakes/ imperfections. Once I found a way of turning the audience into a group of people with whom I interacted I found that concerts became fun again. In the same way, with running it's often a fear of failure. For me, I deal with this by preparing thoroughly, so that I can override that fear in my mind with the knowledge that I have trained sensibly for this race. In addition, when you start to feel nervous before a race, accept that you are going to have a change of mood (with physical manifestations) but see it as a positive: it is your body getting ready to race. Walk around, read or do whatever it takes to distract yourself a bit but also use the time to focus your mind. – Jools B
  • Make sure you don’t squeeze the fun out of running
    I always feel a little bit nervous before big races (such as a marathon) as so much preparation has gone into it and if it goes wrong, it's not as if I can do another and perform well the following week or so. However, I put it into perspective - it's a hobby, it's not as if my career or life depends on it. I wouldn't get anywhere near as nervous for an important exam. I think this approach would help you. As far as little races goes, who cares? If it all goes wrong, you can do another one very shortly. There really are bigger and far more horrible things in life to stress about - just remember that, enjoy your running and be proud of what you've achieved! – Little Lizard
  • Look beyond the finish line for a useful distraction
    I find it best to do a morning race, that way you can enjoy the rest of your day. I find it quite daunting as I am always on my own, but the feeling when I finish is what keeps me going. – Charlie Farley

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Discuss this article

Do you get them? How do you deal with them? Do they ever go away?

I know I get nervous before things, used to have almost terminal stage fright at school and was always sick before going on stage. I still get nervous before big events, and along comes that sick feeling in my stomach.

And so, when it comes to running, I get that same feeling from the moment I wake up. Urrggh. I feel sick, don't want to eat lunch, know I've got to eat lunch, else I wont run well in tonight's race.
Posted: 28/06/2007 at 12:12

I find it best to do a morning race, that way you can enjoy the rest of your day. I find it quite daunting as I am always on my own, but the feeling when I finish is what keeps me going.
Posted: 28/06/2007 at 12:14

i hear that helenliz, i get nerves before every race ever!

that and wanting every race ever to end!! be nice to enjoy it one time!

it's the sheer adrenaline building which you need to race well...i certainly don't get nerves before any training run.

but then again i hardly get aches in races either which often come in on training runs!
probably cos i know i can just stop in training to stretch

funny old game
Posted: 28/06/2007 at 12:15

tremendous butterflies and no matter how much I drink a really dry mouth. Why do we put ourselves through it!!
Posted: 28/06/2007 at 12:20

Good! Not good that you suffer too, but glad it isn't just me. :-)

I'm fine once I start. I wont say I "enjoy" a race, but the nerves quickly vanish and I do feel good about myself afterwards.

Owlie, I don't get a dry mouth, mine waters far too much! I notice that I have the urge to swallow saliva far more than ususal.
Posted: 28/06/2007 at 12:48

When you are nervous at the start line, just think a moment and ask yourself why?

Seems strange, but what are you actually nervous about?!
Posted: 28/06/2007 at 12:54

Failing Coops
Posted: 28/06/2007 at 12:55

I always get nervous before a race.

I don't know why, because I'm never expecting to achieve a place or anything.

It's not as bad as some of the descriptions above though - just a few butterflies, and a dry mouth.


Posted: 28/06/2007 at 13:02

Nothing concrete, or that sounds in the least bit sensible. I don't want to fail, look a fool, let myself down, bring shame and dishonour on my family, be laughed at, be noticed, fall over, be especially good, be especially bad, be last and I want to make dad proud of me and that never happened.

Fancy psychoanalysing that lot? Be my guest!
Posted: 28/06/2007 at 13:04

In a race at a normal level, you cannot fail. Get round, even by walking, and you have suceeded. Just got to have a positive outlook.
Posted: 28/06/2007 at 13:09

Depends on your viewpoint Coops.

If I feel I haven't done my best I would feel that I had failed.

Plus I am frustrated by my inability to run better so it's always a disappointment

Yes change my expectation but..... I can't. That's also like admitting defeat!
Posted: 28/06/2007 at 13:12

The logical part of me knows that.

But there's that illogical bit, and it seems to sit somewhere in the region of my stomach, where all these deep dark fears are stored up. And it's difficult to be positive or logical in the face of that sort of very basic, primitive even, fear feeling.
Posted: 28/06/2007 at 13:14

Oh I can be logical and accept that I will run at such a pace....and finish but it won't stop me wishing hard I could do better and worrying that I might do worse
Posted: 28/06/2007 at 13:15

I've got a 5k race tonight and I know that when I get there I'll have butterflies and a dry mouth and my heart rate will be up. Having a positive outlook helps a bit but doesn't get rid of the nerves altogether - its an emotional response rather than a logical one I guess.

You've done well to come up with a list Helenliz, I don't think I can be that specific. I guess we all have different reasons for nervousness - I do know that one of mine is fear of disappointment in myself, if I don't do as well as last time. That happens quite often and its never as bad as I think its going to be...

Oh, I dunno! Sounds like you've got a race tonight as well
so good luck!
Posted: 28/06/2007 at 13:18

Maybe I'm nuts, but that feeling you are talking about I love it and go out of my way to experience it, my wife thinks I'm a bit soft in the head! but hey, why not?
Posted: 28/06/2007 at 13:20

It's not nerves, it's just a fight or flight reaction to stress or anxiety you are feling about the race. Your digestion is slowing down hense the dry mouth and butterflies.

But your breathing should be speeding up, heart rate increasing and sugar & fats pouring into the blood. Surely good things if you are racing.
Posted: 28/06/2007 at 13:23

sorry to lower the tone - literally-but with me it's not a dry mouth and butterflies it's excessive bowel movements ! can't believe there's anything left to come out after the third one of the morning!Always been the same ,years of Sunday morning football wouldn't of been the same without the pre-match c**p .Once I'm at the race itself - I'm fine ..crazy
Posted: 28/06/2007 at 17:19

I get that too sard ;o)
Posted: 28/06/2007 at 17:50

Hi guys

I'm sure many of us can identify with these feelings so think Helenliz's question will make a great Reader to Reader. Look forward to reading about your personal experiences and nerve-settling tactics...

Thanks

Catherine :o)
Posted: 02/07/2007 at 11:37

Yes I do get a bit nervous before races and this involves several trips to the loo before my stomach settles down.

Once I get into my running I am fine and once I get into my pace I do generally enjoy most of my races.
Posted: 02/07/2007 at 11:55

Yes, i somtimes dont know why we put ourselves through it all. I too feel a wee bit sick before a race. Suppose its the fear of letting myself down. I did have to walk bits of the marathon though which was my worst fear, so I guess after that, what am I afraid of.....but i still get pre race nerves even though walking it wasnt that bad, you get to soak up the atmosphere more.
Posted: 02/07/2007 at 12:34

I always get a few butterflies on race days, which I think is a good thing if you can keep them under control. All adds to the adrenaline rush that makes racing better than training.

Recently my big solution to the nerves problem is this: Do more races. I've found that in previous years when I've only done a handful of races, there's been a lot of pressure (self imposed but we all do it) on myself to get a good time. This year I've alredy done far more races than in any previous year, and I tend to go out with a more relaxed attitude becasue if things don't quite go right, there's always next time. It also means I set my targets more conservatively, depending on how I feel on the day, rathre than picking out a target time 2 months before the race.
Posted: 02/07/2007 at 14:34

Well helen i guess you have a fear of failure and a fear of success all rolled into one. I am quite similar. On the one hand you crave success, to run a great time, to gain the approbation of your father and on the other hand to fear failure and the ridicule you fear that might bring. You might also fear success for the ridicule and jealousy that can bring. You don't want to let others down and you don't want to let yourself down.

When i ran at school i was a contender to win races and i was physically sick back then, overwhelmed by anxiety. It was very unpleasant. But now as i have no chance of winning i just run my own race and try to improve my best times but also to enjoy it. Could you not adopt a lighter approach?In a sense you cannot fail. Just turning up and doing a race is a good achievement in itself. And you don't want to spend years in psychoanalyis looking at your relationship with your father. That would be a marathon!
Posted: 02/07/2007 at 15:00

I still get bad nerves even after running for 18 years. I've been physically sick on many occasion. No idea why I get it so bad, even if I know I've trained for the event and am capable of completing it.

Breathing into a paper bag slowly has helped ease the sickness a few times though.
Posted: 03/07/2007 at 12:15

When I was making a living as a concert pianist, I suffered terribly with nerves, but learned ways to deal with this - and they can be applied to racing as well. I try to think of the sensations pre-race as excitement, rather then nervousness. I imagine that my nervous system is giving me lots of energy to run a good race. Concentrating on that really helps and makes the experience positive, rather than negative. Another thing is practice, practice, practice! As someone mentioned before, the more you race, the less scary it will become. You can also develop rituals that relax you before a race. I race a great deal (though slowly) and tend to do exactly the same things before each race, same breakfast, same way of travelling, same warm-up etc. This way, the body and mind feel that what is to come is predicatble, and this helps relaxation. Listening to music that you love prior to the race may help. The final thing that I can think of is to get loads of sleep in the lead up to a race.

I hope this helps a bit!
Posted: 03/07/2007 at 18:14

I play the violin (for fun - never professional) and found as a teenager that the nerves got in the way of enjoyment (and success) in concerts, auditions and exams. Ultimately I found the best way of coping with the nerves was to talk to the audience so that, psychologically, I 'humanised' them. As a performer, you can perceive your audience as a group of critics who will notice only mistakes/imperfections. Once I found a way of turning the audience into a group of people with whom I interacted I found that concerts became fun again.

In the same way, with running it's often a fear of failure. For me, I deal with this by preparing thoroughly, so that I can override that fear in my mind with the knowledge that I have trained sensibly for this race. In addition, when you start to feel nervous before a race, accept that you are going to have a change of mood (with physical manifestations!) but see it as a positive: it is your body getting ready to race. Walk around/read/whatever to distract yourself a bit but also use time to focus your mind.
Posted: 04/07/2007 at 14:53

You're not alone - why do you think all of the portable toilets at races are full of Diahorrea :)


Posted: 04/07/2007 at 16:41

LOL exploding guts for me too! (yuk) and a dry mouth and a mega stress on. I have resist the temptation to drink as I'll then end up wanting a wee on the run!

It has got better with more racing!
Posted: 04/07/2007 at 17:06

I guess its nice to know i am not the only one who suffers with pre race nerves. I too have to go to the toilet several times b4 a race, which has the tendency to leave me starving hungry and lethargic. I now take a diarrhoea relief capsule when i wake up and this seems to do the trick !
Posted: 04/07/2007 at 22:30

Race nerves?

Use them to your advantage.

It is your fight or flight relax kicking in.
At the moment you want flight....why/what im doing here. Safty is the option. A bit like home sickness.

Turn it around and channel it to a fight attitude. You trained for the event, you know your body can do it. Show it.
Old cliche but mind over matter.

Some take solititude as the way forward(IE lone racers) other a more social event, see what one fits you?
IE Im going to race and beat a PB or go with some running chums and make event of it.
Posted: 05/07/2007 at 19:44

I always feel a little bit nervous before big ones such as a marathon as so much prep has gone into it and if it goes wrong, it's not as if I can do another and perform well the following week or so. However, I put it into perspective, it's a hobby, it's not as if my career or life depends on it. I wouldn't get anywhere near as nervous as an important exam, etc. I think this approach would help you.

As far as little races goes, who cares? If it all goes wrong, you can do another one very shortly.

There really are bigger and far more horrible things in life to stress about, just remember that, enjoy it and be proud of what you've achieved!

Happy training :-)
Posted: 05/07/2007 at 21:46

all i can say is running is just a hobby. treat a race like a training run with more people enjoying it with you.
remember its a Hobby
Posted: 05/07/2007 at 22:23

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