The Anxious Competitor’s Guide to Staying Calm
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Similar to how you meticulously plan your increase in miles or speed, it’s critical that you develop a routine to help your mind productively transition into race mode. Doing so gradually lets your mind adjust to the fact that a competition is on the horizon and fight off the inevitable anxiety that’s headed your way. “When it comes to the mental component of a competition, it’s very rare for an athlete to be able to switch it on like a light switch,” says Joel Fish, director of the Center for Sport Psychology in Philadelphia. “Most athletes need a pattern of routine that helps the body and the mind signal that it’s getting time to compete, habits that note the countdown is getting closer to actual race day.”
Here’s what that pattern should look like.
Six Months Out
Sit down and write two training plans: physical and mental. Having a map of how your mileage will ramp up from now to race day helps you feel more in control over this behemoth undertaking, and the same goes for a mental game plan, says Chris Carr, sport and performance psychologist at St. Vincent Sports Performance in Indianapolis. Plus, people who write down their goals are more successful at achieving them than those who let the plan swirl around their mind, according to a study from Dominican University of California. Plan to work your way up to practicing visualization, mindfulness, and diaphragmatic breathing four times a week each by the one-month-out mark.
Part of creating that plan is also penciling it into your calendar, the same way you would with weekend long runs or rides. “One of the key components of mental toughness is the ability to maintain balance in your life,” says Carr.
Why is it so important to launch into this now? Visualization and breathing techniques help keep motivation high and pain low on race day, but your brain can’t tap into these strategies for the first time under the duress of a marathon. You have to start training your mind early on, just like your body.
Two Months Out
The next step: attach a psychological tool to each trigger, whether that’s something like a cue word, breathing rhythm, or even a certain song on your playlist. Don’t lock yourself into a single solution quite yet. Use your training runs and rides to play with the pairings. “When it comes to the mental game, you don’t need to go hard—that will just increase anxiety and frustration. You need to reflect and slow down, to be mindful of and play with obstacles that arise,” Fish says.
One Month Out
This is where most people start to freak out. The race is close enough that you can smell the masochism you’re about to endure, and you will inevitably feel underprepared. You’re definitely not—trust the training and know that “the last month to the last week before competition is where anxiety naturally peaks,” Fish says.
Since you’re at your psychological worst, put it to use: go for a dress rehearsal and try leveraging all your mental tools with your biggest roadblocks, he suggests.
Once you’ve nailed your dress rehearsal (which you will), get back to basics: ditch your tracker, head out for a run or ride tech-free, and remind yourself why you chose to start this sport in the first place.
“This question brings us back to the most powerful motivator: the one that comes intrinsically, or from within,” says Greg Chertok, sport psychologist at Telos Sport Psychology Coaching in New York. “When we participate in an activity for the inherent pleasure of doing so—whether to feel good, to be healthier, or for the enjoyment of the sport—we gain feelings of self-control and autonomy.”
Once you get back to why you love to race, incorporate that inherent focus into your monitored runs, and challenge yourself to maintain concentration on the “right” things as you get closer to race day, Fish adds.
One Week Out
With a week remaining, your goal is to normalize stress: “Physiologically, excitement and anxiety are very similar activations of our sympathetic nervous system and have the same physical symptoms—rapid heartbeat, muscle tension, racing thoughts,” Chertok says. When you feel these and your mind shoots straight to the negative, immediately counter with a positive. Trade “nervous,” “nauseous,” and “shaky” for “excited.” Make a list of words associated with the potential positives of stress, like “run faster” or “deeper focus,” and read this list before you head out on a training ride. “Our bodies really do respond differently to the content of our internal dialogue,” Chertok says.
Don’t be afraid to get practical. Sit down and study your race route. Chertok suggests dividing it based on mileage, terrain, sport, history of energy levels—whatever makes sense to you. “Instead of viewing the competition as one overwhelming event, you view it as block by block or mile by mile. It’ll feel more manageable beforehand, and in the race, you can mentally check off each part to keep up momentum and motivation.”
Chertok points out that the closer you get to race day, the level of the stress hormone cortisol elevates, both in pros and amateurs. The difference is that rookies tend to view the presence of stress as detrimental or problematic—which can actually lead to greater levels of stress and poor decision-making—while the elite view that same stress as energizing, helping them focus and perform optimally. “Having a bad reaction to stress is what causes athletes to suffer,” he says.
One Day Out
Some people like to be alone and get into the competition headspace, but don’t underestimate the power of friends and family. Socializing can act as a distraction, helping you relax and disengage from the pre-race nerves, says Fish.
Since this isn’t the ideal time to grab beers with your buddies, Chertok suggests inviting friends and family over for a big feast. It’ll keep your mind off the impending race while simultaneously checking off a huge component of preparation on your list—fueling up 12 hours out.
And make a checklist of everything you need to do tonight as well as in the morning—laying out clothes, charging headphones, packing a post-race bag, setting multiple alarms, making a pre-race snack. “Athlete or not, checklists help us feel both competent and accomplished, and a checklist of even small things gives you the impression—whether false or authentic—that you’re capable,” Chertok says.
Five Minutes Out
Think of something funny. Laughing activates your parasympathetic nervous system, which directly counterbalances your sympathetic nervous system, that fight-or-flight response currently on overdrive thanks to all your nervousness, Carr explains.
It’s simple, but take a breath. Anxiety can prompt a chaotic start, Chertok says. It tenses your muscles and shortens your breathing, limiting the amount of oxygen available for your brain to think clearly, which in turn could lead to dumb decisions that might waste precious energy early on. You know the plan to get you from start to finish. All you have to do is calm down enough to stick with it.