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No matter how many races I show up for, I still get a pounding heart, lump in my throat, and sick stomach about five seconds before the race begins. Even on smaller “fun” races. On the “big” races, I usually pretend that the race is not actually happening to me—that I’m on vacation somewhere, just hanging out in a wetsuit. And then, “Surprise! Go race!” At that point, I usually cry from the shock of it all. But then I go into the water and move slowly throughout the day. People laugh at me when I say that, but I promise it’s true. Ignorance is bliss.
I have learned when it comes to racing (or any competitive sport for that matter) that we all deal with race day differently. Some of us pace, freak out, throw up, act out, and lose our minds on our families. If the pre-race stress is so great that you walk off the course before the race starts, then you may need to figure out a new plan. That being said, sometimes maybe a DNS (Did No Start) is a good plan after all.
Let’s assume, however, that we want to start and finish the race. How do we control those nerves? The goal should be to expend the least amount of energy possible before the race—because we need that energy to swim, bike, and run.
First, busying your mind with something else is not a bad thing. I swear that I ignore race morning and even when I am getting ready for the race, I am not thinking about the race. I think about other things like pop culture, what I want to write about next week, the kids’ school supplies—anything to keep my mind busy. Also, I physically do something in the morning—like read or scroll through Instagram (avoiding all triathlon pictures, mind you). Focusing on something else is a great way to keep the heart rate down, and the nerves at bay. One way to be capable of this blissful ignorance is to make sure that you’ve done all your race day visualization in advance of the race. Taking a few moments in the weeks and months leading up to the big day to anticipate the race and visualize how the day should go is a great tool to be able to focus on something else on race morning.
Second, eat something that will agree with you. So often triathletes try to change up nutrition on race morning—at the advice of whoever—and that may or may not be the wisest thing to do. If you pound some strange food, then the stomach starts talking, then the brain says “Oh no!” and the worry cycle will really get going. Eat something you’ve eaten 100 times before, and you know will behave in your belly.
Finally, maintain perspective. Even if you are out there trying to hit a big goal or qualify for the world championships, maintaining perspective on the race is important. Yes, triathlon is important. But so are our families, jobs, and the racers around us. Being a good citizen of the world (and the sport) is a great way to calm nerves. Offer assistance in the morning to someone missing goggles or who can’t seem to get into their wetsuit. Be friendly and helpful. Talking to other racers in the morning is often very calming; just beware of the dramatic ones who are freaking out. Stay away from them. Just remember that we are here to have fun, tackle a challenge, and become better people. With that at the forefront, we really can’t go wrong.
Meredith Atwood (@SwimBikeMom) is a recovering attorney, motivational speaker and author of Triathlon for the Every Woman. She is the host of the podcast, The Same 24 Hours, a show which interviews interesting people who make the best of the 24 hours in each day. You can download a free triathlon race day checklist here. Meredith lives in Atlanta with her husband and two children and writes about all things at MeredithAtwood.com. She has two books coming out in 2019.