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The Psychology of Panic Training

Why you freak out in the week before a race–and how to stop it.

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It’s two weeks from race day, and you can’t stop checking the weather report. It might be hot, so to be on the safe side, you order a new triathlon kit with extra cooling properties and have it rush-delivered to your home. While you’re checking out, you notice there’s a new salt supplement–maybe that could be helpful in the heat, too. While you’re at it, you wonder if buying a new wetsuit would make you faster in the swim. After clicking the “Order” button, you still feel agitated, so you add a few extra miles to your run and hit the pool for a bonus swim. 

Panic training, or the unique anxiety we feel in the weeks leading up to race day, is the endurance athlete’s attempt to control the uncontrollable. Though some athletes love the reduced training volume of tapering, others find the abundance of time to be almost unbearable. To cope, they fill it with “just one more session” or obsessive second-guessing about their preparation.

“Panic training is more common in sports than you might think, and it can quickly develop with little to no warning,” said Dr. JoAnn Dahlkoetter, performance psychologist and author of Your Performing Edge. “We’ve put in so much time training, and invested so much of ourselves, and yet we can feel we are not up to completing the race. We often picture many things going wrong.”

This type of mindset can trigger the body’s “fight or flight” mechanism, resulting in anxiety that goes beyond normal pre-race jitters into debilitating performance anxiety. To regain a sense of control, we look for multiple ways to confirm that we are, in fact, ready. We do extra workouts, buy a new pair of shoes at the expo, and try a trendy superfood for dinner the night before the race in hopes of gaining a boost. But this can backfire: bonus workouts in the week before a race won’t yield more fitness (in fact, it will only cause an athlete to show up at the starting line tired), and last-minute changes to clothing or nutrition not used in training can result in chafing, GI distress, and loads of discomfort.

“All athletes get nervous leading up to a competition. When self-doubt creeps in, panic training is one of the knee-jerk reactions,” said coach and mindfulness expert Christina Roberts. “But as I like to say, you can’t cram any more for this test.”

RELATED: Keep Positive Self-Talk in Your Mental Toolbox During Training and Races

Avoiding Panic Training: The Strategies

To keep the panic in check (and your chances for success on race day intact), Dahlkoetter and Roberts recommend re-establishing your focus with the following strategies:

1. Breathe.

The quickest, most efficient way to relax and get centered is to take 10 slow, deep abdominal breaths. As you inhale, say to yourself, “I’m breathing in strength.” With each exhale, say, “I’m breathing out tension.” This helps your body and mind sync up and calms the fight-or-flight response.

2. Write down what you’re doing right.

“Take time to reflect on what you’ve done in the months and weeks leading up to race day,” advised Roberts. “Remind yourself of what went well and what lessons you learned through those months.” 

3. Shop for a mantra, not supplements.

If you feel the need to add a new tool to your race belt, try one that won’t leave you chafed or feeling nauseous. Write down words or mantras that could prove useful on race day—Roberts recommends power words that highlight your strengths, not your fears—this shift takes your perspective away from what you’re lacking and puts it squarely on your abilities.

4. Tell yourself a better story.

“During the week before, see yourself doing it right,” said Dahlkoetter. “Go over in your mind exactly how you would like to do your race. Visualize several possible scenarios so that you’re prepared mentally to respond to anything that might come up.”

5. Name your fears.

Anxiety grows in isolation. Whether you talk about your worries with a training buddy or write it out on paper, saying your fears out loud gives them less power. Roberts recommended going one step further and organizing your worries into those you can control (“I haven’t packed yet”) and those out of your control (“It’s going to rain on race day.”) Focus on the ones you can control.

6. Thank yourself for being anxious.

Reframing your anxiety can help your butterflies fly in formation, said Dahlkoetter. “It’s important to distinguish between being worried, and being psyched and ready for the challenge of competition. Tell yourself, ‘This feeling is directly connected to doing my best. The more I feel this way, the better I’ll perform.’”

7. Distract yourself.

“Oftentimes, our hobbies and other things take a back seat when we’re in the thick of our training,” said Roberts. “Shift your attention to that dusty book on your nightstand, or your overgrown garden. Whatever you fancy, do something different.”

8. Stick to your plan.

“There are three important things to remember right before your race–nothing new, nothing new, nothing new,” said Dahlkoetter. “Stay with what’s tried and true, what has worked for you.” 

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