Nervous on race day? Sports psychologist, Dr. Michelle Cleere can help

November 28th 2019

You've logged the miles. You've done the work. You're at the starting line. Physically, you've done all you can do to prepare for what lies ahead.

But, are you in the right head space? Are you ready mentally for what lies ahead?

We're thrilled to have sports psychologist Dr. Michelle Cleere share some thoughts about getting into the right head space on race day. Read on for the lowdown.

You arrive at your race. Why is it that when you look around some people are jogging, some are in their own world listening to music and others, you overhear, are talking about how nervous they are?

The first two groups of people are probably preparing themselves for the marathon by getting into their zone. Do you fit into that last group?

Do you get really nervous before a marathon? Butterflies? Upset stomach? Increased heart rate? Rapid breathing?

The majority of runners will most likely fit in the last group. So, I am going to give you some tips to help you find your zone.

The important thing to know about nerves is that they are going to exist. They are the body’s way of preparing us for something important. When nerves grow they turn into anxiety. Anxiety comes in two forms: cognitive (your thoughts) and physiological (heart rate, stomach ache, butterflies, etc).

Nerves (anxiety) can be either situational: you get really nervous running a race, but do not get nervous during a normal training run. Or it can be a trait: you are a generally nervous person about things in your life. These are good thing to know about yourself because you can learn how to deal with both of them.

One way to deal with either form of anxiety is by using a pre-race routine. Even if your anxiety is a trait that you are born with using a pre-race routine can help eliminate further anxiety.

How does a pre-race routine help decrease anxiety?

It’s a way of implementing control over your environment. It provides a stable environment for something that might be highly unstable. It’s especially helpful for anxious runners because if you are thinking about something that’s more positive, you cannot be thinking negatively about the race. The brain is pretty high tech. But, it cannot do two things at once.

Hence, if you are in your own zone thinking positively you aren’t being distracted by negative thoughts. Routines also provide consistency and help ready an athlete to perform. Routines help you forget about race outcomes and keep you focused on the present moment. They keep you focused on the process.

Some athletes have routines the night before a race, the morning of a race, during warmup and have mental ways of coping during a race. These are all helpful but the most important are geared toward the morning of and how you cope with things during the race.

A morning routine might include: showering, eating, getting dressed, etc. What’s going to prepare you to run?

A pre-race routine might include: walking or jogging, stretching, using some positive imagery, using a mantra, taking some deep breaths, etc.

How do you get yourself into an optimal race space?

Things to use during a race might include: using some imagery, talking to yourself positively, taking some deep breaths, using a mantra, refocusing on your environment, etc. What is going to get you out of your head so you can just run?

Further technique explanation:

  • Mantra: I am doing this versus I can’t do this; I am prepared and ready for this versus I haven’t trained enough; I am as good as anyone out here versus everyone else is better trained or prepared than I am.
  • Using your breath: inhale through your nose, exhale through your mouth. And if you are thinking about your breath you are not able to think negatively or think about how nervous you might be.
  • Imagery: imagine feeling strong throughout the race and finishing strong; your muscles are like the wheels of a train; you are seeing yourself as a bystander and seeing yourself running strong, fast and comfortably relaxed; etc.
  • Meditation: simply being/existing

Some final thoughts:

  • Act as if this is merely another workout with friends.
  • Remember no matter what, only good will come from the event whether you obtain your PR or you learn something from the experience.
  • Mentally separate yourself from thoughts of winning and losing. Race like a child by enjoying the process and challenge of the event.
  • Learn to trust your training experience in order to allow yourself to perform at near maximal ability without undue effort or pain.
  • Do not try to foresee or foretell. Take things as they come or as they happen. Don’t worry about the what ifs!
  • Stick to your physical and mental plan!
  • Get a customized training plan.

Have fun!

For more information visit Dr. Michelle’s website: