Q: I get so nervous before races that I sometimes almost throw up. I know it affects my performance. Why does my body sabotage itself like this, and what can I do about it?
A: I feel your pain. I used to suffer from debilitating pre-race anxiety as a high school runner, and it wasn’t pleasant. We’re in good company, though. Pre-race nerves affect athletes even at the highest levels. Just last week I saw a runner competing in a track event break down crying before her race because she was so anxious.
Pre-race nervousness has two main causes. First, racing is quite stressful on the body, and the body knows it. When a race is coming up, mental anxiety and physical symptoms such as nausea emerge as your body’s way of saying, “Are you sure you want to do this?” A second source of pre-race anxiety is fear of failure—and fear of success.
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While pre-race anxiety can and often does sabotage race performance, it may also have the opposite effect. As long as they don’t get out of hand, the physical and psychological symptoms of anxiety prime the body and mind for an extraordinary effort. Athletes who understand the potential benefits of a little pre-race nervousness don’t seek to avoid it. A British Olympic swimmer once said, “If I wasn’t anxious before a big event, I would be very anxious.”
Most athletes don’t have this problem. Far more common is the problem of being too anxious. What can you do to reign in runaway nerves before races?
Experience helps. Just as the best cure for a fear of public speaking is public speaking (the more you do it, the less it scares you), the best cure for pre-race nerves is racing. But that takes time. In the meantime, I suggest that you identify the specific source of your anxiety and address it.
For example, if your primary fear is that of failing to achieve your goals, shift your mindset from an outcome orientation to a process orientation. In other words, in the days and hours before an event, stop thinking about your goal and instead think about executing your race plan and giving your best effort. Remind yourself that you will be satisfied with your race regardless of whether you achieve your goal as long as you truly do the best you can, and that should take some pressure off.