Sound Mind, Sound Body: How to Beat Pre-Race Nerves

Professor of Psychology Andy Lane explains how positive thinking can improve performance


Posted: 1 November 2010
by Andy Lane, Ruth Emmett

You've trained wisely and eaten well - but you just can't shake those pre-race nerves. So how can you work on mental preparation? To find out, I teamed up with researchers from Sheffield, Oxford, Manchester, Reading and Wolverhampton universities. We tried and tested five ways of boosting runners' moods. Before following the strategies, most of the runners under-performed; afterwards, 70 per cent of them improved their performances. Here are the secrets of their success.

Strategy 1: If-Then Planning

This is a strategy of two halves. First, identify the barrier, then work out a possible solution. This forms an 'if-then' mantra: "If I feel anxious, then I remember that even my worst performance is pretty good."  Or, "If I feel sluggish, then I ask myself, 'Can I take another step?' The answer is yes." Each runner in our study repeated their mantra in the morning and before training. It works because you can automatically implement the solution as soon the problem arises.

Study subjects said: "I felt in control, like I could always manage another step."

Strategy 2: Goal Setting

Tell yourself what you intend to do and how well you intend to do it. We asked runners to pick two goal strategies such as: "I plan to focus on the rhythm of my running", "I plan to focus on running efficiently" or "I plan to think about my positive characteristics". Again, the runners referred to these in the morning and before training.

Study subjects said: "Three-quarters of the way through, I thought I was going to fail. But remembering my goals raised my spirits and got me going better than ever."

Strategy 3: Mental Imagery 

Elites often visualise themselves performing well. The more you use your imagination and inject the images with sound and colour, the more effective this  strategy can be. Unfortunately, we also tend to recall poor performances, so counter-balance these with good thoughts. As soon as you have a negative thought, visualise yourself getting a surge of energy late into the race, or think about how great you'll feel as you cross the finish line.

Study subjects said: "As the run progressed, my emotions got more positive."

Strategy 4: Listening to Music

Tuning into your favourite beats improves running performance. If you want to run relatively fast, select upbeat tunes. If you want to pace yourself, a slow tempo is more suitable. We asked participants to rate the motivational quotient of their favourite songs, then create a playlist specifically for their goal run.

Study subjects said: "I felt euphoric during miles three to seven, and I got into an incredibly stable rhythm. I felt proud of myself and thrilled that my intervention worked."

Strategy 5: Pre-Selected Playlists

'Off the shelf' running playlists shortcut the time-consuming process of analysing rhythms and selecting songs. These compilations range from upbeat music aimed at making running more enjoyable, to faster music, aimed at assisting performance. And they might do your brain good in other ways, too: researchers at Ohio State University, US, found that athletes who exercised while listening to music performed twice as well on a verbal fluency test as they did  without the soundtrack. Check out our new Runner's World playlist.

Study subjects said: "The music was quite hypnotic, so it took my mind off the muscle ache."

RW Online Poll Results: What's your strategy?

We polled runnersworld.co.uk members and here's what you said worked for you:

Using mental imagery: 35%
Goal setting: 35%
Listening to music: 23%
If-then planning: 5.5%
Using set plylists: 1.5%


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