August 26, 2015

How to Beat Race Day Stress

Over the years I’ve talked with and observed a countless number of athletes while they were milling around the transition area waiting for the race to start.  Rarely has anyone said they feel fully prepared to tackle the day.

More often you’ll hear worry; that they should have logged more training so they’d feel confident when the gun goes off.  The longer they talk the higher their stress levels go.

A couple of years ago while I was volunteering at a race I saw firsthand what fear induced stress can do. A woman who had entered the Tri-Rocks San Diego race became so frightened that she literally froze as she got close to the water.  She was so terrified, she couldn’t move! A couple of volunteers had to assist her back to the medical tent and get her calmed down in case she passed out.

While some nervousness is to be expected and can have a positive impact, too much can ruin your big day. Seeing this athlete reminded me why it’s so important to have a strategy to manage your stress when your mental gremlins try to take over. After all, it’s race day. Your training is done, and the gun is about to go off… it’s time to focus on having the best day possible.

Below are some simple ways you can use your body and direct your self-talk to make a positive impact on your race performance. And, maybe more importantly, you can use these tactics to have more fun out there on the course, too.

Get in the Moment

Being fully present is one of the best ways to tame your nerves and conserve valuable energy.

To get in the moment take some deep breaths to get calm and focus on relaxing each part of your body.  Be sure to remind yourself about all the work you put in to get ready for this day.

While this is one the most effective ways to calm yourself it can be a lot easier said than done, especially in our always connected, highly distracted world.  It will take practice. Just 5 minutes a day in the final weeks leading up to the race can make a big difference.

Use Your Body to Change Your Thoughts

The easiest way to change the negative picture in your head is to smile.

I learned this in my first Ironman.  Someone had written something funny on a sign and posted it near the end of the first lap of the bike course.  It just made me laugh and for the rest of the day I couldn’t get that amusing sign out of my head.  It actually made my whole race experience more fun… so much that I couldn’t wait to get out there and do it again.

Maybe you can stash a joke book in your transition bag to pick through to help get you in the right frame of mind.  Or carry a photo of something you find funny or makes you feel happy. Amping up the giggle factor in your head can go a long way to calming the nerves and will help your performance too.

You can also strike what Harvard Professor Amy Cuddy calls the wonder woman pose for a couple of minutes before the race starts.  Your goal is to mimic the identical “fist-on-the-hips” pose as the fictional TV superhero for 2 full minutes. This may sound a little strange but it’s a well-researched way to get your body to release testosterone into your system which can give you a nice little confidence boost prior to jumping in the water.

Another well-researched tactic is to combine physical triggers with race milestones to build personal positivity.  It could be as simple as a little fist pump or thumbs-up as you pass each turnaround buoy and aid station.  The purpose is to congratulate yourself, which will help keep you positive and moving forward.  For best results add a short phrase like ‘well done’ or ‘good job’ with the physical trigger.

Tell Yourself What You Need to Hear

Most writing on self-talk focuses on how to either silence your internal critic or how you need to be more positive in the way you speak to yourself. While both are important the real key is to pick the type of self-talk that will directly benefit you at that moment in time.

Motivational self-talk helps to keep you focused and moving forward.  Phrases like ‘you got this’, ‘you go girl’, or ‘I love this stuff’ fall into this category.  There are no rules just whatever fires you up and gives you the lift you need to keep your feet moving or helps you increase your pace.

Self-talk can also be technique focused.  Repeating phrases like’ high elbow’ during the swim or ‘quick feet’ during the run can be a very effective way to keep you in the moment and focused on your form instead burning valuable mental cycles on how much farther you still have to go. I find this tactic particularly useful coming out of T2 where thinking about how far you have to run can feel overwhelming.

Pick out one or two of these tactics and give them a try in your next race.  I am confident that they’ll help you perform better and have a less anxiety-filled experience.

That’s it for this week.  Until next time train safe, stay healthy, and hope to see you at the races.

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