You know what it’s like in the lead-up to your big race. You can’t eat anything. You keep having visions of an over-crowded swim start or a mid-race puncture. You’ve been to the toilet 476 times. You snap at anyone who tries to talk to you. And you’re wishing you’d never entered the stupid race in the first place.
Yes, pre-race nerves are common in all endurance events, but there is good news. You can harness this pre-race tension to deliver your best racing performance — you just need to understand the reason you’re feeling this way.
Challenge or Threat?
When it comes to pre-race nerves, it’s all about how you perceive what lies in front of you. “Awareness and anticipation is a big thing when it comes to performance anxiety,” says sports psychologist Dan Abrahams. “You can see it through body language, that the individual is struggling to cope with what lies ahead.”
Abrahams’ words tie in with what’s called the transactional theory of stress. This model, outlined in Handbook of Behavioral Medicine, suggests that while we unconsciously assess the stressors and demands of an event, they’re not actually the problem. The real problem is how we appraise each of them and then decide whether we have the resources to meet the problems posed. These ‘resources’ include your ability, your previous experience, and your relevant skills.
Based on your ability to face these problems, you’ll fall into either a ‘challenge’ state or a ‘threat’ state. The ‘challenge’ state is where you’ve processed the situation and concluded that yes, you can cope. You’re fully engaged with the task at hand and can employ positive coping strategies to deliver optimum performance. The ‘threat’ state, on the other hand, is where you perceive that you lack the resources to cope with the challenge ahead. It’s debilitating, but it can be turned around.
Seeking Mental Toughness
Pinning down potential stressors and reacting to each one is a thankless task. A 2010 study in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports identified 339 distinct stressors, with 315 highlighted by elite athletes and 228 by amateurs. Earlier research has shown that factors such as self-confidence, perceptions of control, and degree of mental toughness plus personality traits like extraversion, perfectionism, and neuroticism all influence whether we see a situation as a challenge or a threat.
Confidence is a big one, with the ‘challenge’ athletes approaching their goals actively. They feel in control of the situation and display high levels of mental toughness. On the flipside, racers who perceive a situation as a threat will exhibit poor focus, low self-confidence, and lack of control.
Pre-race nerves can also be affected by your hormonal profile. Exercise physiologist Jamie Pringle of British-based performance engineering outfit Vorteq Sports formerly worked for the English Institute of Sport. He once told us that in the build-up to the 2012 London Olympics, the British Olympic Association undertook a project to examine how home advantage affected performance from a physical perspective.
“The classic situation is that you’ll receive a big cheer when you start, which raises testosterone levels, which can give you a performance boost,” he said. When you’re viewing the upcoming race as a challenge, your testosterone levels rise, leading to a strong performance (if you’re not over-aroused, of course). Alternatively, seeing the situation or opponent as a threat suppresses your testosterone levels, potentially leading to inferior performance.
This is all well and good, but how can you turn a threat into a challenge? While your personality is pretty much set, you do have the ability to work with what you’ve already got — and that means a number of psychological interventions.
Set Your Goals Like a Champion
“Confidence equals competence”. Those are the words of triathlon coach Darren Smith, who sent six athletes to the 2012 Olympics. In other words, if you feel confident about your race, you’re more likely to feel mentally strong and perform well. Part of this comes down to setting realistic goals in the first place.
There are three different types of goals you might set yourself, including outcome, performance, and process goals. Here’s what they look like.
- Outcome goal: This is your overarching objective. This might be that you’re looking to finish 15th in the 40-44 age group at your next Ironman.
- Performance goal: This is the amount of time that you think you’ll need to achieve your outcome goal. For example, finishing 15th in 12 hours.
- Process goals: These are oriented to your method, technique, and skill. Examples include maintaining a smooth swim stroke, keeping an aerodynamic position on the bike, or sticking to your nutrition plan on the run.
Out of the three, process goals are arguably the most important because they focus on how you’re going to achieve both your performance and outcome goals. How are you going to finish 15th in 12 hours? By maintaining a masterful swim stroke, handling the bike like a pro, and fueling when your body needs it. Without these competencies, your outcome and performance goals remain out of reach. Furthermore, focusing on your process goals will help you stay focused during the race, which boosts both competence and confidence.
Keep Self-Talk Positive
When you’re exercising hard, you might experience one inner voice encouraging you to keep going, and another urging you to slow down or terminate the session. It’s been suggested that this kind of ‘self-talk’ is the competition between your inner drive to keep going and your homeostatic, physiological mechanisms that urge you to put the brakes on.
Thankfully, you can influence your self-talk to boost your performance. Studies, including one led by Nadja Walter of Leipzig University, have shown that positive self-talk reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can impair power output and decision making. Just remember to keep your self-talk positive, as negative self-talk dents your confidence and increases nerves. For example:
- Positive self-talk: “This is a challenge, but I can do this!”
- Negative self-talk: “This is crazy! I’ll never be able to do this!”
Another form of positive self-talk is to create a ‘what-if’ plan. Around a month before your race, get a piece of paper and make three columns:
- Column 1: Write down things about the event you’re worried about.
- Column 2: List how you could prevent those things from coming true.
- Column 3: Write down how you’d resolve them if they did happen.
For example, a common fear in cycling and triathlon is getting a tire puncture. This fear would go into column 1. In column 2, you might note that you can reduce your chances of puncturing by switching to tubeless tires with sealant. In column 3, you’d make a plan to fix your tire if a puncture does indeed happen. You would plan to sit down somewhere safe, eat a gel (so it digests while your stomach is still), and methodically change the tire. Take the time to visualize this process. You could also practice changing a tire before the race so that this procedure becomes second nature to you.
Writing all of this down in advance will boost your confidence and keep you from panicking on race day, allowing you to maintain focus if and when your concerns become reality.
Finally, write a list of your training and racing successes along with your strengths. You can then recall these confidence-boosters mid-race when things get tough. It won’t necessarily turn you into a winner, but it’s a form of positive self-talk that’ll bring out the best version of your racing self.
Fletcher, D. et al. (2010, November 18). A conceptual framework of organizational stressors in sport performers. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1600-0838.2010.01242.x
Mak, A.S. et al. (2004, April). Gender and personality influences in adolescent threat and challenge appraisals and depressive symptoms. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0191886903002435
Perry, J. (2021, June 8). Competitive athletes: Are your races a threat or challenge? Retrieved from https://www.sportsperformancebulletin.com/endurance-psychology/endurance-athletes-are-your-races-a-threat-or-challenge/#_edn2
Steptoe, A. (Ed.) Handbook of Behavioral Medicine: Methods and Applications. Springer, 2010.
Walter, N. et al. (2019, June 19). Effects of self-talk training on competitive anxiety, self-efficacy, volitional skills and performance: an intervention study with junior sub-elite athletes. Retrieved from https://www.mdpi.com/2075-4663/7/6/148