How to handle pre-race jitters

Illustration by Meg Hunt

You selected an event, circled it on the calendar and trained your heart out. Then you get to the start line and you’re so nervous you think you might pass out. You know it’s just a local 10K, but emotionally it feels like an Olympic final.

What’s going on?

Your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) controls your heart rate, blood pressure and blood vessels. That nervous feeling you get just before the race starts is caused by the SNS pumping adrenaline and other hormones into your bloodstream. When the race starts, this flood of ‘fight or flight’ hormones starts your heart racing and causes your blood pressure to climb, leaving you primed for action. If you’re too keyed up, however, it can be an issue. In an overly agitated state, you’re likely to rocket off too fast, leaving nothing in the tank for the later part of the race. Pre-race planning helps you strike the right balance between the SNS response and keeping your cool.

READ: 5 tips for pre-race stress relief

How to cope

Visualise success: Before the race, take a few moments to imagine that you have just achieved your goal. Picture yourself crossing the finish line and hold that mental picture in your head, conjuring up as much detail as you can. Use all your senses. Is there a cheering crowd? How does your body feel? What are your emotions? Building mental familiarity with the race in this way can help you relax – and even boost your performance. Envisioning yourself running well appears to create neural patterns in the brain that almost match the neural patterns created when you run. This seems to code the muscle, motor, and behavioural memory of a skill. When combined with enough physical training, visualisation may imprint the skills into your brain and help train your muscles to do what you want them to do. Reaching a goal mentally might help make it easier for you to achieve it physically.

Think positively: When you come down with a case of the butterflies, it means fear has set in. Fear throws off your pacing, makes you doubt your strategy and messes with your sense of energy management. That’s when you start making mistakes. You can manage your anxiety by thinking confidently. Prepare mantras you can remember and repeat to yourself, such as ‘I’m strong, I’m fast, my speed will last.’ Mantras that can take potential negatives and turn them into positives also work well.

Be superstitious: On race day, stick to a routine – eat only what you tested in training, for example. And if you have ‘lucky’ shoelaces, use them. Shoelaces don’t possess magical powers, of course, but people who develop superstitious behaviours can use them to help calm their minds. Instead of allowing your anxiety to hamper your performance, the ritualistic behaviours of a superstition help keep you calm, which can positively affect your performance.

READ: 9 ways to boost your mental strength


Excerpted from The Runner’s Brain: How to Think Smarter to Run Better by Dr Je­ff Brown, with Liz Neporent (Rodale)