8 Ways to Deal With Race Anxiety

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Are you anxious about an upcoming 5K, 10K, marathon or other race? It doesn't matter if running event is a first-time challenge or if you're a seasoned pro, almost everyone gets nervous before race day. But there are ways to work through your nerves so that you're not a basket case in the days leading up to your race. 

How to Manage Race Anxiety

The first step to managing your nerves before race day is to understand that your anxiety is normal. In fact, most coaches would tell you that you should be concerned if you are not nervous before your event. Of course, that probably won't fully alleviate your unease. Try these strategies to feel confident in the days leading up to your race.

Focus on What You Can Control

There are plenty of variables that you can’t control on race day. The weather for example is completely out of your hands. Worrying about it can drive you crazy. Instead, manage the things that you can control: pre-race sleep, nutrition, and hydration.

Pro tip: Clear your calendar in the 2-3 evenings before your event. Plan relaxing activities such as reading or getting a massage in the hours before your regular bedtime. This will help to enhance sleep quality.

In the same manner, plan your meals to make sure that you are eating a healthy diet and drinking plenty of fluids before the event. Avoid alcohol and junk food.

Maintain Healthy Habits 

During stressful times, it's easy to forget about taking care of yourself. But if you can maintain healthy habits you'll be doing your body a favor. There are simple steps you can take to avoid catching a cold, getting injured, or getting overly tired before your race.

Pro tip: Take extra care to wash your hands and (if possible) avoid germ-ridden public places in the week before your running event. Wear sunscreen to avoid getting sunburned. Other self-care activities such as deep breathing, short naps, and short, and easy exercise sessions can also enhance your immunity.

Find Stress-Relieving Activities

Mind/body activities like yoga or meditation are a great way to relax your mind and body. Of course, not all forms of yoga are relaxing, so be careful of the type that you choose if you take a class. You don't want to introduce new physical challenges before your big day.

Also, spending time outdoors has been shown to decrease stress. Pack a picnic, go for a hike or just spend the afternoon in your backyard to maximize outside time.

Pro tip: Check the listings at your health club or local studio and see if restorative yoga, yoga nidra or guided meditation is offered. These classes provide relaxation benefits without taxing your muscles.

Review Your Training

It’s normal to start doubting your marathon readiness before the race. To combat these fears, review your months of training. Think back to the long runs you've completed, the speed work you've done, or the workouts you completed.

Pro tip: Review training logs or journals if you have them. Remind yourself that you’ve worked hard and sacrificed a lot to be ready for the race. If you don't have a training log, simply review your calendar and remind yourself of the sacrifices you made to get yourself to race day.

Get Chatty

You're not alone in feeling anxious before race day. If you trained with a group, chances are good that your training buddies are nervous as well. Reach out to them and ask them how they are feeling. Maybe you trained with a friend that you can discuss your concerns with.

While over-focusing on anxiety is not likely to help, having a few brief conversations will help you to feel less isolated. Bonding over your shared fears and doubts will help you relax and realize you’re in good company.

Pro tip: If you trained solo, don't despair. Take advantage of pre-race functions to connect with others. For example, there may be a race-expo before your event where you have to go to pick up your bib number. Start a conversation or attend a pre-race talk or lecture.

Plan Your Race Outfit

In the 2-3 days before your race, plan what you will wear before, during, and after the race. Decide if you will check a bag (many races offer this service so that you can keep warm-up and cool down clothing and other items in a secure area). Lay out your outfits and pack your bags so they are ready to go.

For items that you can't pack yet (like your phone) make a packing list. Getting everything in order will help ease your fears. Waiting until the last minute to pack will increase your anxiety and the likelihood that you'll forget something.

Pro tip: Your race day outfit should consist of your favorite, most comfortable running clothes that you’ve run in numerous times. You should wear nothing new on race day. Sticking with what’s familiar to you will help ease your anxiety and help you avoid unexpected issues like chafing or wardrobe malfunctions. Make sure you have a couple of different outfits planned, in case it’s warmer or colder than expected.

Make a Race Plan

Having a plan for travel to and from the event, finish time, and post-race family meet-ups to help ease your fears. Even if it’s your first running event and you don’t have a specific time goal, having a race plan will help you feel like you’re more in control. 

Talk to a running coach or buddy about how you should approach the race. Try to get a rough estimate of your finishing time so you’ll have a general idea of your pace. Take a look at the race course and talk to other runners who have done the race so you know what to expect.

Pro tip: Make sure you don’t spend hours and hours overanalyzing and researching the course and your race approach. It’s good to have information to feel more in control, but obsessing about it can lead to more anxiety.

Manage Medications

Physical activity and exercise is recommended by experts who are managing a form of anxiety disorder. Studies have shown that exercise provides anxiolytic effects—meaning that it helps to relax and tranquilize people who might be suffering. But participating in a race may cause additional stress in the short term.

If you have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and especially if you are on medication, talk to your healthcare provider about different ways to manage the increased stress on the days before your race. Additionally, find out how to manage your medication in the days leading up to and during the event.

Pro tip: Talk to your provider about any specific concerns that you might have (panic attacks, loss of sleep before the race, or effects of medication on performance). Specific studies and guidelines regarding medication and running performance are limited, but your healthcare provider can evaluate your medical history, diagnosis, medications and provide personalized advice.

Tips for Different Distances

The stress that you feel in the days before your running event may be slightly different depending on the distance of your event. A marathoner, for example, is likely to experience different thoughts than someone running a 5K. Use these tips to feel confident at any distance event.

5K

Shorter races are often smaller races. If this is your first event, you might worry about finishing last, losing your way, or having to walk for part of the course. Rest assured that there will be volunteers along the way to guide your event. And it is very common for walkers to take part in these events. So, even if you run for part of it, you're not likely to be the last finisher.

10K

Longer running events can cause greater stress. You might worry about timing your pre-race hydration, food, and bathroom trips.

Relieve your stress by getting to the event with plenty of time to spare. Stop eating at least an hour before the event and visit the bathroom even if you feel that you don't have to. Leave yourself plenty of time to get into your corral and line up for the starting gun.

Marathon and Half Marathon

Especially if you are running a marathon or half marathon for the first time, these events can be very stressful. Keep in mind that many runners who are participating are doing so for the first time. Very few people at the starting line are feeling 100 percent confident about their ability to reach their goal time or even to finish.

Take solace in knowing that you are among like-minded fitness friends. And remember that most of your friends are family are far less concerned about your finish time than you are. It is likely that they are simply impressed with your training and participation.

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Article Sources

  • Anderson E, Shivakumar G. Effects of exercise and physical activity on anxiety. Front Psychiatry. 2013;4:27. Published 2013 Apr 23. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2013.00027