Effectively Handling Pre-Race Nerves.
Kate Smyth Olympian and Naturopath at the Athlete Sanctuary, shares her tips to managing stress and channeling feelings in a positive direction for peak performance. She explains how any kind of important individual performance, from making a speech to running a marathon can cause emotional and physical stress. While some ‘nervous energy’ can be beneficial, too much ‘performance anxiety’ can waste valuable energy and become a roadblock to peak performance.
Common symptoms that you are getting a little over nervous:
- Niggles miraculously appear that preoccupy your mind, they are nothing serious but you imagine them to be worse than they really are
- You are getting over anxious and react to situations that would normally not bother you
- You get fixated on details…. but your attention span shortens
- You may overeat and constantly snack (seek comfort in food) (not a bad thing when carbohydrate loading) or your appetite may reduce (not so good for carbohydrate loading)
- Your bowel movements change- some people get constipated, others frequent the toilet
- Your stomach flutters or churns, you get bloated or gassy (how embarrassing)
- You need to pass urine more frequently
- Your sleep pattern changes and you may have a busy mind that stops you from falling asleep or wakes you during the night
- You may feel light trembles, twitches or shakes in limbs, racing heart and increased sweating
- You forget little things- like where you left your wallet or car keys etc
But the good news is, even world-class athletes experience pre-race nerves and there are plenty of things you can do to nurture yourself and dampen down your nerves so you can arrive still fresh and focussed at the start line.
Top 10 Tips
- If you feel ravenously hungry, but make sure you have suitable low- medium glycaemic index foods on hand such as vegetables with their skins on like baked sweet potato, whole grains like oats, barley, quinoa and buckwheat. These will provide ‘good energy’, and suitable fibre ahead of your race. If you don’t include some fibre, and you usually have plenty of fibre, you may feel constipated on race morning.
- Avoid any stimulants such as caffeine, black tea, guarana, chocolate, or sugars. Stimulants will increase anxiety as well as stimulate your adrenal glands to make cortisol which can make you feel fatigued even before you’ve started the race. Stimulants will also affect your sleep, both the quality and quantity. Try to avoid stimulants for the final two days (and nights!) before your race.
- Sip rather than guzzle your fluids and eat lightly and frequently. Always sit down and relax while eating your food, chew food properly and slowly and ideally be around others in a pleasant social setting removed of stress. If you suffer from bloating you may like to try peppermint tea.
- Review your physical and mental race plan so you ensure you have fully programmed into the mind how you want the race to pan out. Whilst this doesn’t prevent things from going haywire it will increase your chances of success and reduce nervousness. Be confident that everything is in place and that you have covered all of your bases.
- After looking over your physical and mental race plan, put it aside and think about other things for a while. Distract yourself by watching your favourite funny movie or TV show, cuddle a loved one, pat an animal or get out in nature.
- Do gentle exercise that isn’t related to your sport. E.g. if you are a runner- go for a gentle walk, float tank therapy, gentle yoga or pilates to help release tension.
- Get to bed very early two nights before your race and allow yourself a sleep in the day before the race. It is common to have a restless sleep the night before a race. Extra naps of 20 minutes can also help.
- Stimulate your appetite ( if it has declined) with bitter foods or liquids such as small amounts of rocket, endive, lemon in water or apple cider vinegar.
- Calm your nerves with a relaxing tea of chamomile, lavender, lemon balm, hops or passionfruit flower throughout the day leading up to race day.
- Have an extra dose of magnesium before going to bed to help release muscle tension or have a bath with magnesium salts in it an hour before bed.
Pre-race nerves and some degree of performance anxiety is normal. By acknowledging your feelings and implementing strategies to manage them, you will have a better chance of optimising your sports performance. One of the best tricks I learnt at the start line of the Chicago marathon with Denna Kastor (Bronze medalists at 2004 Athens Olympics and American record holder for 10k to marathon) is to introduce yourself to a stranger and wish them well in their race. I will never forget how great I felt when Deena did that to me!
If your race day is looming, I wish you well!