Mental Preparation for Race Day Q&A

BY Carrie Jackson

Performance is just as much mental as it is physical. Answer these 10 questions to determine if you are mentally prepared for race day.

As athletes, we know that physical skill alone is not enough to deal with the demands of training and competition. Performance is just as much mental as it is physical. A couple of weeks ago, we hosted a webinar with Carrie Cheadle, “Mental Preparation for Racing Your Best.” The webinar was so popular and Carrie got so many good questions afterwards that we thought we’d share her responses with all our athletes and coaches. Read through the Q&A, then set aside time to watch the full webinar on YouTube so that you can learn how to train your mind for performance on race day, just as well as you’ve trained your body.

Question 1

How do you fall a sleep the night before the event? I tend to get extremely excited and anxious. My heart rate increases the night before when I am trying to focus mentally and trying to relax. It tends to burn me out. What can I do to get over pre-race insomnia?

One of the most effective tools for insomnia is using progressive relaxation. However, this is a skill that is developed over time – so you can’t just try and use it for the first time the night before a race and expect it to work. You can’t call on a skill to help you relax in the moment if you haven’t done the work – just like you can’t call on your fitness to help you in a race if you haven’t done your training.

The fact is (as I’m sure MANY of you have experienced) sometimes you just won’t sleep the night before a race. If you struggle with sleeping before your races, know that it’s OK if you don’t get a phenomenal night’s sleep the night before your race. Do your best to sleep well the two nights before that and know that you can get NO sleep the night before your race and although it’s certainly not ideal, still pull out a good performance.

A couple quick tips: if you’re going to watch television before bed, research has shown that watching something funny can decrease your stress hormones. Additionally, you can use the essential oil of lavender, which has also been shown to decrease stress hormones and increase quality of sleep if you smell it before bed.

Question 2

As a coach, how do I help my athletes who have potential to podium but put too much pressure on themselves and always underperform?

That’s when you send them to work with me! There are so many different factors that could be at play when you have an athlete that has the physical potential, but seems to always underperform. In that situation, the issue is more than likely a mental one. Once you’ve ruled out all of the physical factors (fitness, hydration, nutrition, etc.) and the athlete feels like it’s the mental aspect they are struggling with – then you can try and assess what’s happening. Some athletes will end up unconsciously sabotaging their performances almost as a protective mechanism. You can feel very anxious and vulnerable putting everything you have on the line and finding out it’s still not enough – so some athletes hold back or make mental mistakes so they have a reason for why they underperformed. Other times the self-induced pressure will trigger an athlete’s stress-response, which will affect his/her ability to make smart decisions during the race. Helping athletes set process goals versus outcome goals (discussed in the webinar) can help take the pressure off and keep their focus in the moment. Also having a conversation with your athletes about the different ways to define success, and how it isn’t solely about the outcome of the race, can help relieve some of that pressure as well.

Question 3

Near the beginning of your presentation, you spoke about being excited and stressed and how that affects performance. On that topic, is there a way to tell if you are getting TOO excited and going past your peak performance point?

Excitement can be a positive type of stress and can still affect your body and mind in ways that aren’t always optimal for performance. How much activation you need depends on the individual and on the sport. If you’re so excited that you’re finding it hard to concentrate – then you may have passed your peak performance point. In order to assess how much excitement, or how much mental and physical activation are optimal for you and your performance, you would need to go back and reflect on all of your past competitions. When you think about your past races, you can try to assess how you were feeling before your race and determine how that factored into your performance. Thinking specifically about your best and worst races, you can see if there was a difference between how excited you were feeling before the race and determine how much is optimal for you. Once you know where you need to be, you can work on the tools to either calm yourself down or pump yourself up to get into your optimal state.

Question 4

Do you have any mental tips for maintaining focus and positivity when illness hits you close to race day and you find yourself missing out on training for an extended period of time?

It can be so disappointing to be sick before your race. First off, I feel like I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the importance of making sure you’re not overtrained/under-recovered. For endurance athletes there are illnesses that can be staved off by taking a day off when you experience that first inkling of feeling “off”. Consider that you might choose to push through that feeling in order to get your training in and end up having to take a week off instead.

But, getting sick does happen. One approach I use when it comes to getting sick is knowing that if you are privileged enough to be an athlete for long enough, at some point you WILL get sick at a very inopportune time, and unfortunately it’s just your turn. When it’s really close to your event – you have to trust that it’s better to take the time off now and be healthy on race day. Trust that everything you did up to that point was enough. You might be in a position of having to adjust your goals for the race, but being flexible to changing conditions outside of our control is part of being an athlete.

Question 5

At what point should you decide you’re self-sabotaging, your body’s physical signs are no longer positive and you should step away from competition? For example, anxiety with performance, with the workouts and being physically sick prior to the event on a regular basis? Basically, at what point is it just too much?

The decision to transition out of sport can be extremely challenging and heart-wrenching. This question right here is actually one of the biggest reasons I decided to write a book. I have had so many athletes come to work with me because they were experiencing such intense anxiety that they were starting to contemplate whether or not it was worth it to compete – even when they loved their sport. I decided to write a book about the work I do with athletes and give everyone the tools that they need for managing their feelings of stress so they can get back to having fun. If you’re miserable and no longer having fun and you find yourself pulling away from your sport – these are signs that it could be too much. You may either need to take a break or get ready to start transitioning out of your sport. That transition could also mean that you redefine your relationship to your sport and maybe step back, but don’t step out altogether.

However, if you’re miserable and not having fun, but you keep going back for more because more than anything you just want it to be fun again – then you need to work on your mental game so you have the tools to be able to manage your anxiety and actually enjoy competing in the sport that you love. Once you have the tools and know that you can enjoy it, that’s when you can make the decision about whether or not to leave your sport knowing that it’s YOU making the decision, and not your anxiety and fear making the decision for you.

Question 6

Do you have any thoughts on pre-sleep positive visual imaging – visually walking through parts of racing? I had great luck with this personally and am working with my athletes to do the same.

Your strategy for using imagery depends on the outcome you are trying to achieve. Are you trying to get into an optimal emotional state, planning race strategy, or trying to induce a relaxed state for sleep? There are different types of visualization you would choose to use depending on what you are trying to achieve. Pre-sleep visualization doesn’t work for every athlete especially when we are talking about walking through parts of the race. For some people it gets them too amped up to think about the race and then they can’t sleep. You could have your athletes try thinking about a past race when they performed really well and think about that in as much detail as possible. Although that can be a great addition to an athlete’s pre-performance routine to help with confidence, right before bed might not work for every athlete.

Question 7

Have you ever experienced visualization being a negative experience for a person? I coach a woman with a high level of race anxiety and when we do race visualization exercises it seems to be sabotaged by her nerves and fear of mistakes. Are there ways around that? Or should race visualization be avoided altogether?

Yes, for some athletes, just visualizing the race can produce anxiety. Because of this, imagery is not necessarily a tool I use with everyone, especially during pre-race prep. With athletes that have such intense anxiety that they even feel it while using imagery, I’ll usually work on some other stress-management tools with them before we work on visualization – if we use visualization at all. If your athlete is motivated to use imagery, you could have him or her brainstorm an “anxiety pyramid”. Have them write out a list of situations that make them anxious and then rank them from the least anxiety-producing to the most. Then start doing visualization with scenarios that cause NO anxiety and work up from there. The ability to use imagery is a skill and your athlete’s proficiency in that skill may also be a factor in whether or not it’s the right tool right now. They may need to work on the skill so that they can learn how to make the images vivid and control the images so that they can have a positive effect on performance.

Question 8

How should a coach address secret goals?

Talk about the concept with your athletes and do it in a non-judgmental way. All of the athletes I have worked with really connect with the idea of “secret goals” so when you talk about it, they get it. (The concept of “secret goals” is discussed in the webinar). Whether or not your athletes will tell you their REAL secret goals is a testament to your relationship with your athlete. If they are concerned about disappointing you or being judged by you – they aren’t going to tell you. But if you approach it openly and talk about how to bridge the gap between their secret goals and their stated goals, it can be a great conversation. Having that conversation can help your athletes either figure out what they need to do to get to closer to their secret goal, or know that their stated goal is a worthy goal.

Question 9

Can you give some pointers to avoid and/or recognize mental burnout, and then how to correct it?

If you’re tired, not having any fun, feeling unmotivated, irritable, angry, sad, or bored; or you hit a relatively small roadblock and fantasize about quitting your sport – these are possible signs of mental burnout. The MOST effective approach is to prevent this from happening. You need to be able to recognize your early signs of mental burnout and address it at that moment – be PROactive instead of REactive. Take time off, find a new workout buddy, cross-train, reconnect with your goals, and remember what you love about your sport – these are all ways to help you get back on the path of feeling motivated and re-energized. It can also be good to reflect on the past several seasons to determine if there are any patterns to your mental burnout. See if your motivation tends to dip around the same time during each season so you can prepare for that in your training plan.

Question 10

I’m a marathon runner and late in races I have difficulty convincing myself to keep running and not take walking breaks. As a result, I sacrifice my secret goal. What’s the best way to avoid this?

This is a situation where having an outcome goal for your race can be beneficial. When you have a specific goal you are striving for, and you are committed to, having that goal can sometimes help you push through that moment when you want to stop. Other times you just need a strategy for how to make it through that moment. You can commit to running to the next landmark (tree, pole, etc.) and then once you get to that point you pick another landmark to get to. Sometimes breaking it down into these smaller chunks makes it easier for your mind to get on board. When you feel like you want to walk because you’re fatigued and you’re thinking, “How can I possibly run seven more miles!?” your brain is trying to tell your body to stop. Plan ahead of time what you need to say to yourself in that moment, something that will help you relax and keep moving forward. Saying something like “one foot in front of the other”, “smooth and steady”, or “each step gets me closer to my goal” makes it more likely for you to keep moving forward than saying, “I want to stop, I want to stop, I want to stop”.

Watch Carrie’s full presentation to learn more about secret goals, visualization practices, progressive relaxation and more topics touched about in the Q&A.

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About Carrie Jackson

Carrie Jackson is a Certified Mental Performance Consultant and expert in the field of sport and peak performance psychology. She is the co-author of the book Rebound: Train Your Mind to Bounce Back Stronger from Sports Injuries, as well as co-host of the podcast The Injured Athletes Club. She also runs a Mastermind to help coaches Level Up their coaching businesses. Sign up for her Mental Training Email List and find out more about her programs over at Follow her @feedtheathlete