“I don’t think I ever went into a race, even a smaller local race, where I wasn’t nervous.” The words of Ironman legend Dave Scott are a reminder that pre-race nerves affect everyone, from amateur athletes to the elite performers who seemingly win races for fun.
The tell-tale signs of pre-race jitters - clammy hands, an increased heart rate, excessive sweating, thoughts of ‘why am I doing this?’ - will have affected most athletes at one stage or another, and the reaction to the situation can be attributed to the ‘fight or flight’ response of our autonomic nervous system.
One of the earliest theories that attempts to explain nerves in relation to sporting competition is that the body elicits a ‘fight or flight response’ - which is the body’s automatic reaction to perceived harm or stress. Races and competitions are seen as potential stressors because they threaten an individual’s self-esteem.
Responses to any situation will vary from person-to-person and, just like an individual’s approach to hydration, there's no ‘one size fits all’ solution when it comes to dealing with pre-race nerves.
According to Graham Jones’ Competition Anxiety Theory, the ability to control the situation and available options determines an athlete’s response to anxiety. If you believe you have the tools to cope, then you tend to strive to achieve your goals, be more confident and you’re likely to perform better.
However, those familiar symptoms of anxiety – sweat and increased heart rate – are likely to become debilitating if you don’t believe you have control over the situation (for example, you worry about what you will do if you get a puncture or a DNF), which in turns impairs performance and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
What causes those pre-race nerves?
Common factors involved in pre-race nerves include fear of failure, fear of not finishing, lack of preparation, new equipment, ‘what if’ scenarios – what if I get a puncture? What if I get eaten by a shark on the swim? What if I fall off my bike?
An individual’s ability to gain control of competition stressors will depend on experiences, upbringing, trait anxiety (the degree to which they’re predisposed to feel anxious) and personality.
According to the blog of the legendary British Ironman champion, Chrissie Wellington, “everyone gets nervous and apprehensive. It wouldn’t be normal not to. You have to channel that nervousness and use it”.
So, how do you overcome or channel pre-race nerves??
There are plenty of examples of genuinely world-class athletes struggling with the debilitating effects of nerves and anxiety, and even suffering panic attacks before races. Take the legendary Olympic cyclist Chris Hoy, who admitted, “nerves would get the better of me before every race, especially if my family and friends were watching”.
Talking about one race in particular, Hoy revealed the extent of his troubles early on in his career during an interview with the Daily Mail. “The din of the crowd was overwhelming. I was like a rabbit caught in the headlights. At that moment, I wanted to be anywhere else but on the track.”
To overcome pre-race nerves, Hoy used a psychological strategy called ‘anchoring’, where he visualised a positive image of when he last had a great success and then attached that image to a gesture (e.g. squeezing the left ear lobe). He would then use this ‘anchor’ before a stressful event to help recall the positive memory and state of mind.
Here are a few more potential coping strategies...
1) Introduce a pre-performance routine
Pre-performance routines don’t refer to a quick rendition of the Macarena before your race (although you can do that if it helps!), but rather to a sequence of task-relevant, individualised and systematic cognitive and behavioural strategies carried out before a performance (Hanton et al, 2008).
In simple terms, a behavioural strategy could involve simulating the environment that you’re likely to encounter on race day and developing practical strategies to cope. For example, practising taking your wetsuit off, refining that transition changeover, or even learning how to repair a puncture.
The focus is very much on ‘controlling the controllables’. Energy wasted on worrying what might happen is better spent on preparing in the best possible way to ensure you are ready for different eventualities.
Meanwhile, a cognitive strategy could be ‘imagery’, which involves using all of your senses to create or re-create an experience in the mind with the intention of mentally preparing yourself for race day.
‘Visualisation’ is a part of this technique, so you could visualise yourself on race day – from the warm-up, to putting the bike on the rack and setting your gear up in transition, to gearing up for the mass swim start, and finally crossing that finishing line.
It's an ideal way of replacing that previous maladaptive response to certain stimuli on race day (e.g. I don’t want to get out of bed) with a response that ensures you only focus on what you can control, rather than worrying about what could go wrong.
Similar to your swim, bike and run disciplines, positive imagery is something that can be improved with practice and is an ideal tool for the night before or even a few hours before your race.
If it’s good enough for Chrissie Wellington, it’s good enough for us. Wellington was reeling from injuries suffered during a bike crash in the build-up to Kona in 2011, but put visualisation to good use en route to winning yet another Ironman World Championship. “I recalled those [past successful] races, and visualised myself overcoming discomfort, and being strong and successful”.
Your own pre-performance routine could start the night before a race by familiarising yourself with the event, as well as by preparing your kit, bag and hydration and nutrition. Ideally, your routine would be highly personalised and flexible.
For example, World Champion triathlete Vicky Holland recently revealed on the BBC’s The TriPod podcast that she writes a list the night before a race to help cope with the nerves. The list includes a step-by-step guide of what she will do on race day – what time she will get up, the time and her choice of breakfast, when she will have her first sports drink, what time she will go into transition and the things she needs to do when setting up. Holland is effectively ticking off boxes to ensure her energy is focused on racing, rather than worrying whether she has everything sorted.
A study in 2008 showed that one of the benefits of pre-performance routines included improved performance under pressure.
2) Self-Talk And Thought-Stopping
Although you risk looking a little bit odd by talking to yourself, ‘self-talk’ is an ideal way to help get on top of negative thoughts.
This requires a high degree of self-awareness and a great way of improving awareness is by picking out the eight most important aspects of a successful performance and writing them down, thus creating a ‘positive mindset’.
Or there's something known as 'Thought-Stopping'. As soon as any negative thoughts start creeping in, whether pre or during a race, you could say ‘Stop!’.
Use cue words (i.e. positive words or phrases - e.g. ‘keep going’) instead to motivate yourself to push through when negative thoughts might have previously got in the way of performance.
A great idea is to develop a plan for what to say to yourself at important parts of a race, which will help keep your performance process-focused and your mind centred on what you can control.
3) Relaxation Techniques
One of the most common pre-race issues related to nerves is going in ‘over-aroused’ (not that kind of aroused, get your head out of the gutter!), whereby you're too 'pumped up'. A great way of ‘calming down’ is by using relaxation techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation or deep breathing.
Dr Andrew Wiel’s 4-7-8 breathing technique is a good place to start when trying to calm those nerves...
Step 1: Empty the lungs of air
Step 2: Breathe in through the nose quietly for 4 seconds
Step 3: Hold the breath for 7 seconds
Step 4: Exhale forcefully from your mouth, pursing the lips, and making a “whoosh” sounds for 8 seconds
Repeat the cycle up to 4 times.
Remember, pre-race nerves will affect most athletes and effective coping strategies should be highly personal and flexible. But hopefully you find these tips a useful starting point to overcoming your own pre-event anxieties.
I’ll leave you with this quote from Golden State Warriors basketball star, Stephen Curry. “I’m never afraid of big moments. I get butterflies… I get nervous and anxious, but I think those are all good signs that I’m ready for the moment.”
Chris Knight has an MSc Sport & Exercise Psychology and is an NCTJ-accredited journalist who has written for The Guardian and TheSportsman.com.