Reader to Reader: Race-day nerves


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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