Kick Race Day Nerves to the Curb

Have a plan for handling your triathlon nerves so you can avoid feeling overwhelmed on race day.

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Have a plan for handling your triathlon nerves so you can avoid feeling overwhelmed on race day.

I’ll never forget the start of my first long-course triathlon. I was in my corral, walking up to the race start, and suddenly the neck of my wetsuit felt tight—too tight. My breathing became rapid and shallow, my vision blurred, and I found myself hoping for some excuse—any excuse—to go join the spectators. I’d felt nerves before, but this time they were positively taking over.

Luckily for me, I was racing with a friend who recognized the look in my eyes and talked me down. (Mostly, anyway.)

But we don’t always have a pal by our side when that moment of, “What am I doing here?” hits. It’s no big deal if you feel a few butterflies as you wait for the gun to go off—that’s how you know you’re ready to race! However, feeling like you’re unable to breathe, tears coming to your eyes or being unable to control a skyrocketing heart rate is something that’s detrimental to your performance. And that’s assuming you can overcome it enough to get into the water.

If you’ve ever dealt with overwhelming (or even just uncomfortably high) race day nerves, you’re probably as determined as I am to never feel that way again. With these tried and true tips, you won’t have to.

During Your Training

Find visualizations, affirmations or mantras that work for you. “Visualization can be one of the most useful things [for athletes],” says Dr. Kathy Gruver, author of Conquer Your Stress With Mind/Body Techniques. Envision yourself successfully completing your race, or visualize yourself as an animal that embodies what you want to do in your race. “You can also do affirmations around that,” Dr. Gruver says. “Such as, ‘I am as fast as a cheetah.’” The more time you spend thinking this way, the more natural it will feel. So by practicing these visualizations and affirmations during your training sessions, you’ll find them to be easier to use and more effective when you really need them on race day.

Create a ritual. Having a pre-race ritual will help bring a spot of normalcy into any race morning, and the best time to create one is during your training. This might be a dynamic warm up or something you picture or say to yourself as you lace up your shoes. It can be anything you want, as long as you practice it ahead of time and find it meaningful.

The Day Before Your Race

Get prepared. Do you like to know exactly what you’re in for on race day? If so, then make a point to scope out the race route. Does the thought of that kind of recon stress you out? Then just make sure you’re familiar with the course map and trust your training. Being prepared is important, but “prepared” means something different to each athlete. We should all make certain our tire pressure is correct and that we have all the gear and nutrition we need, of course, but it’s up to you whether you lay it all out in your hotel room and take yourself through each transition. Make a checklist of everything you need to take on race morning if it helps you feel calm—but not if it doesn’t!

Remember why you’re there. If you get to the expo and feel your race anxiety beginning to take over, then remember what you’re doing there in the first place says Sage Rountree, author of Racing Wisely. Think about the goals you’ve set and why they’re important to you. “Your goals will help you make smart choices about your warm up, gear and pacing—the things you can control,” Rountree says “Your intentions will help you stay focused in the face of everything that is out of your control.”

Race Morning

Practice mindfulness. The big day is here, and it can be easy to allow negative thoughts to snowball. But the fact is, your brain can only concentrate on one thing at a time, and focusing on every way your day could potentially go wrong isn’t helpful.

Instead, Dr. Gruver suggests practicing mindfulness. “Mindfulness is simply going about a task with focus, presence and engaging all of your senses. The benefit of mindfulness is that it brings you back to the present moment and allows you to respond rather than react,” she says, noting that this can also be helpful during the race. If something goes wrong, being mindful about the present moment lets you get right down to what needs to be done, rather than spiraling over what this one hiccup means for the rest of your race plan. Of course, it makes sense to be mindful as you’re packing your transition bag, but also try practicing mindfulness while doing everyday chores—like brushing your teeth. If you’re focusing on the minty smell of your toothpaste and the way the brush feels on your gums, you can’t focus on feelings of anxiety.

At the Starting Line

Set boundaries and breathe. The starting line is always fraught with nervous energy, but you still have power over how you react to it. It might seem obvious, but if you find yourself next to someone who’s verbalizing all your fears, then go find yourself next to someone else. Don’t invite their negativity into your race day.

As soon as the nerves start to show up, concentrate on your breathing. “Take a few deep breaths with extra-long exhalations to calm your nerves slightly. Extended exhalations engage your parasympathetic nervous system and can help you down-regulate to quell the jitters,” Rountree suggests. “Try breathing into your belly for a count of four, hold for a beat, then exhale for six.” If that’s too challenging, try a variation: “Skip the hold and just inhale four, then exhale for six or more,”says Rountree.

Let me tell you about my second long-course race. After hitting the expo and checking out the course, I excused myself from the group that I’d come with, found a quiet spot near transition and meditated. I pictured myself at each stage of the race, from the moments before the swim to the hilliest parts of the bike to the finish line, and envisioned myself feeling strong and capable, with the race going perfectly. I envisioned details I knew I’d pass on the route, so when I saw them the next day, I’d already have an image of myself at that same point having a great race.

The next day, I had one of the best races of my life.

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