Four tips for dealing with race day nerves


Race day dawns, you get out of bed, you stretch, a quick scan of your body to make sure everything feels good. Then you start thinking about the race ahead, how will it go, will the day unfold the way you want to and will you hit that PR, BQ, and that race goal that seemed realistic many weeks back? Therein starts a process that can have profound effects on the way your race will work out.

Most athletes will reach this point on race day without a strategy for dealing with race day nerves. Everything else will have likely been meticulously planned, the hotel close to the start or finish line, shoes cleaned and ready to roll, training plan followed each day, nutrition and hydration rehearsed and planned out…race day nerves, wow, where did that come from, wasn’t expecting those to appear!

Here are four tried and tested tips for how to be prepared for race day nerves, and to arrive at the start line confident and ready to give your best on race day.

  1. Review your goals – There is an old saying, we promise according to our hopes, and perform believing in our fears. We will often set goals for ourselves that are unrealistic given the investment we can make in actually achieving them. In some cases, a performance goal may have been set unrealistically high, and nervousness, or anxiety, results if the athlete is not confident they can achieve their performance goal. Of course being nervous before a race is also a very natural reaction, and shows that our body is preparing to compete. We recommend setting three goals:
    • your dream goal, where you have a perfect day, and everything falls into place
    • your realistic goal, which is achievable given your training, status, etc..
    • lastly, your baseline goal, the goal that you will accept yourself no matter what takes place.

    Why it works? One of the key components of setting successful goals is being realistic. When we set goals that are more realistic, we have a far greater chance of realizing them. The greater our level of confidence of being able to achieve a goal, the less anxious we are before taking on the challenge.

  2. Calm your mind – Focus on those things that are within your control. So many things can happen in a race that we have no control over. The weather in particular can play havoc with a performance goal. One of our friends who is an elite athlete went to the Boston Marathon a couple of years back with a race plan based on his training performance. Come race day temperatures were way higher than expected. He wisely decided that his race time was not going to be as fast as he had hoped in those conditions. Instead of going with the early pace, he stuck to his revised race plan. Runners slowed down ahead of him, and he moved up the field and placed 4th at the end of the race, and top American. He was thinking smart, running at the intensity that he had planned to for the race, rather than at a higher intensity to attempt to match his pre-race goal time.
    Amplify all those components that have gone well in your training, and minimize those factors that have perhaps not gone to plan.
    You can develop visualization or imagery sessions, where you visualize the process of how you plan to race, and your mental state and focus during the race. Elite athletes have used mental imagery for many years – the beauty is that it works for anyone, regardless of ability level. This is one of the key components in the mental training workshops we hold before races, and was beautifully demonstrated by most Olympic performers before many of the events at the Winter Games in Sochi.
    Why it works? This not only helps to align our minds with our performance goals, it also builds incredible confidence levels, another key predictor of race performance. Somatic anxiety, or nervous feelings, are often triggered by our thought processes. Calming our mind will help to calm our body, and enable us to be focused on running rather than feeling nervous!
  3. Calm your body – What can you do when you’re at the start line, and you’re a mess of nervous energy? Breathe! One of the simplest methods is to focus on deep breathing. Many meditation techniques start with focusing on the breath – it is surprising how quickly anxiety and nervousness can dissipate when we close our eyes and focus on deep breathing. Try standing still, close your eyes if appropriate, and take 10 slow deep breaths, counting each in and out, with a pause between each in and out breath. If you need to, repeat for another 2 or 3 sets of 10 breaths. You can also develop a “trigger” using visualization or imagery training so that you switch into your relaxed, focused, energized race state when you use the trigger linked to that state.
    Why it works? Deep breathing has been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve and, thus, the parasympthetic nervous system – lowering heart rate and blood pressure almost instantly.
  4. Train your butterflies – Many athletes experience a feeling often described as “butterflies” in their stomachs. It can be very distracting, and takes your focus away from the race at hand. We encourage athletes working with us to learn to train their butterflies. Instead of allowing those feelings in your stomach to control how you feel, use the opportunity to empower you. Create an image of the butterflies flying in formation, where you control their flight path. Complete the image with a stream of butterflies flying out of your body literally pulling you along and giving you strength and power as they tow you along.
    Why it works? Many studies have shown that our bodies respond to the images we create in our mind. When we focus control on the images we create of empowerment, then our body responds by feeling empowered. Our mind has no interest in the content of the images we create, so we may as well use this amazing and powerful tool to benefit us as athletes.

This feature was inspired by a recent interview with freelance journalist Lisa Marshall.

Lisa is a regular contributor to Runners World, Competitor Magazine, and other fitness and health related publications. She is an avid trail and mountain runner. See details at

Contact us for more information on Active Mind Race Camps™, or personalized mental preparation coaching.

Also check out the training camps from Active at Altitude here in Estes Park:
Women’s Running Camps
Trail Running Camps
Triathlon Training Camps

We look forward to seeing you!

Terry Chiplin
Owner / Camp Director of Active Mind Race Camps
Endurance Training Coach
WEB: Active at Altitude & Active Mind Race Camp



Categories: Runners, Sports

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1 reply

  1. Great tips. And perfect timing since I’m having pre race jitters right now. Thanks!

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