Channel Your Pre Race Anxiety

How to Channel Pre-Race Anxiety

Learn whether you’re dealing with constructive pre-race jitters or performance crushing pre-race anxiety—and discover how you can channel those nerves into focus and drive.

In part four of our continuing series on mastering your mental skills for race-day, we discuss how to properly channel your pre-race anxiety into positive energy and focus.

How to Cope with Pre-Race Jitters

Every triathlete, runner or cyclist, no matter their level, experiences pre-race jitters—the feeling of excitement or butterflies in your stomach prior to the start of a race. However, some athletes turn pre-race jitters into performance anxiety. Pre-race jitters are a natural part of your racing, but pre-race performance anxiety will cause most athletes to tense up, worry about their performance and ultimately not perform up to their ability.

Are Pre-Race Jitters Helpful to Your Performance?

The first step is to find out if you experience common pre-race jitters or if you are anxious or scared. The difference is that pre-race jitters or butterflies are helpful to your race—they help you focus and perform better.

However, real “performance anxiety” is a reaction to stress or fear about the event that can cause excess tension. We think that pre-race jitters are a form of respect for the event you are about to engage in and part of the physical way your body prepares for the race.

How can you distinguish between pre-race jitters and performance anxiety? Look at the characteristic of each below:

Pre-game Jitters

  • You feel excited to get the race started.
  • You feel physically up and alert.
  • You think clearly about what you want to accomplish.
  • You feel ready to tackle any challenge that comes your way.
  • You feel your heart beating harder, but you think it’s natural and helpful.
  • When the race starts, you relax, get into the flow, and don’t focus on how you are feeling.
  • You have energy to keep going until the end of the race.

Performance Anxiety

  • You are over-excited about the race and feel scared before you start.
  • You feel physically sick to your stomach.
  • You have excess internal chatter and can’t think clearly or calmly.
  • You are worried about what you might encounter during the race.
  • You feel physical symptoms such as an increased heart rate, but worry that you are anxious or uptight.
  • You feel anxious or tight well into the start of the race and it may last for the entire event.
  • You feel drained and exhausted before the competition even starts.

If you identify with pre-race jitters, that’s great. That’s what you want to feel just before the event. You want to embrace the pre-race jitters.

If you identify more with performance anxiety above, you’ll have to learn how to overcome your performance anxiety by channeling it in a more constructive way.

Welcome Your Pre-Race Jitters

The goal is to embrace any pre-race jitters as helpful to your race. Look at your pre-race stress as helpful to your performance. Keep these tips in mind:

  • Embrace the pre-race jitters as your body’s way of preparing for action and it’s natural to feel this way.
  • Remind yourself that pre-race butterflies are one reason you love racing—to feel excited and amped up.
  • Welcome the added adrenaline or excitement and perform with confidence and composure.

Overcoming Pre-Race Anxiety

If you feel you have pre-race performance anxiety, you’ll want to overcome this. This takes more work as it’s often rooted in fear of failure. The place to start is to uncover what causes your anxiety or worry. What’s the fear that’s holding you back?

Here are some of sources of pre-race performance anxiety:

  • Focus on outcomes or result
  • Excess mental chatter or negative self-talk
  • Fear of failing
  • Worrying about what others might think
  • Not performing up to expectations
  • Poor training leading up to a race
  • Worrying about the quality of one’s warm up
  • Worrying about performing well in the “big race”

Tips for Coping with Pre-Race Anxiety

  1. Warm up properly. Make sure you get your heart rate up close to lactate threshold. This will relieve a lot of anxiety.
  2. Do a reality check with your own fears. “Why am I here?” Hopefully to have fun and enjoy the day.
  3. Try putting your fears aside by focusing on something more pleasant.  Do visualization – visualize yourself executing the race according to plan.
  4. Focus your mind on something else. Some athletes work themselves into a state of anxiety as they stand around and worry about results before the race even starts. Observe others, be calm and relaxed, you have prepared for this.
  5. Focus on success instead of worrying about avoiding failure. You cannot win during warm-ups or in the opening minutes of a race. Ask yourself, “What do I need to do to perform my best today?”


Your goal is to welcome pre-race jitters as they are a natural reaction to racing. When it is time to perform, stay calm and slow down. Don’t rush; take your time during your warm up or pre-race routine. This is a good time to give yourself a pep talk with statements of confidence and composure, such as “I know how to race; and I trust in the training I have done in order to get the job done today!”

Don’t forget to check out the other parts of the Avoiding Mental Sabotage series!

6 Ways Athletes Sabotage Their Own Racing Success

Managing Performance Expectations

How to Fuel Your Confidence

How to Conquer Your Fear of Failure

How to be Dynamic Instead of Perfect

Image Of A Runner Using The Trainingpeaks App To Train

Start Your Free Account

TrainingPeaks App

TrainingPeaks offers the world’s most powerful training app, allowing you to plan, track, and analyze your training all in one place. Connect your free trial account with your favorite apps and devices for real-time workout guidance and watch your fitness progress with powerful data tools.

Avatar1505329653 7
About Patrick J. Cohn, Ph.D. and Andre Bekker 

Dr. Patrick Cohn is a master mental game coach with Peak Performance Sports in Orlando, FL.
Andre Bekker (pictured here) is a 12-time Age Group winner in Ironman and 70.3 events / former professional bike rider, and owner of 5th Dimension Coaching.

Download their free audio program, “Mental Toughness Skills in Racing for Triathletes”.

Related Articles