When Taper Time Turns Ugly: 5 Tips on How to Deal With Pre-Race Anxiety
Huddled between hundreds of excited runners at the starting line, I was feeling like an interloper. And it had nothing to do with the fact that I had to travel across borders to be there. Overhearing a conversation about long runs, I tried to reflect on my own training log. I couldn’t recall any of the various self-inflicted suffer fests I endured in the past six months. Am I even a runner? Another photographer pointed a lens in my general direction. I tried to suck in my stomach but the effort was basically moot. The cheesecake I binged on during my taper period sure left its mark. In stark contrast most of my competitors seemed lean and in control, some even a little on the low side in glycogen stores. Like so many times before, I was riding the pinnacle of a pre-race anxiety wave.
I am not alone in my unjustified self-doubt during the taper period, says Dr Cindra Kamphoff, director of the Center for Sport and Performance Psychology in Mankato, Minnesota. Based on her 2012 study she distinguished runners to fall within one of two types, namely positive taperers or negative taperers. The positive taperers felt energized, rejuvenated, and confident during the days leading up to a race. The negative taperers dealt with anxiety and uncertainty during the taper period.
What is Competitive Anxiety?
Anxiety in a competitive environment may be ascribed to elevated stress levels when the demands of training or competition exceed an athlete’s perceived ability. Psychologists differentiate between two types of anxiety, namely Trait Anxiety and State Anxiety. The first relates to where nervousness is a personality trait of a person. State Anxiety refers to temporary feelings of anxiety in a particular situation. So by definition even usually cool, calm and collected people can experience competitive anxiety.
There are two main contributing factors that causes competitive anxiety. The first is the athlete’s own fear of failure. This may be related to an athlete’s perception of his or her own abilities based on preparation, on previous performances, on the perceived importance of the race or beliefs regarding other competitors. In this way the level of competitive anxiety may vary from event to event. The second factor that may contribute to and aggravate competitive anxiety is the pressure of being observed. Whether self-inflicted by broadcasting it on social media or as a consequence of being a top achiever, athletes often feel added pressure to perform as expected by spectators or peers.
Tips on How To Manage Competitive Anxiety Before a Race
If left unchecked and unmanaged, pre-race competitive anxiety can get the better of any level of runner. Accomplished South African trail runner and winner of the 2017 Western States 100 Ultra, Ryan Sandes have had to learn to deal with pre-race anxiety the hard way. After completing and excelling in three to four ultras a year since 2010, his performance suddenly declined in 2014. Sandes recalls experiencing severe pre-race anxiety with symptomatic stomach upsets that eventually caused him to drop out of a number of races. This prompted him to train even harder, as he felt that his race preparation may have been lacking. Consequently he was diagnosed with overtraining syndrome. It took 12 months of no running for him to completely recover.
Luckily there are ways to deal with pre-race anxiety during taper time.
1. Don’t Over-Taper
As important as it is to at a race start feeling rested and recuperated, keep the taper time to the bare minimum if you are prone to severe pre-race jitters. Running is the best form of stress-relief, so schedule the last long run for a week before race day. Work in a short speed session or two in the days leading up to the race to keep you fresh and focussed.
2. Avoid Social Media
Nickademus Hollon is one of only 15 people who have successfully completed the Barkley Marathons to date (since 1995) has also had to learn to deal with immense pre-race anxiety. He suggests to avoid social media nearing race day. “Familiarize yourself with the race rules and route as early as possible and then distance yourself from social media”, says Hollon. “No good can come from getting caught up in weather and race predictions or other participants’ fears and rants.”
3. Focus on Personal Confidence builders
Going through your training logs and reflecting on how hard you worked in preparation for a race will boost your confidence. Also, by rereading your previous race reports and focusing on what you did right or pinpointing ways to avoid what may have gone wrong may also put your mind at ease.
4. Develop a Pre-Race Routine
Is it the pre-race logistics that make you anxious? Then work out an all-inclusive pre-race routine. Practice it well in advance until you can repeat it on autopilot. In this way it may help to simulate race conditions as close as possible during one of your hardest training runs. Be sure to go through all the paces, just like before the actual run. This may include waking up at the time required on race day, carrying all the required gear, consuming the hydration and fuels you plan to use and wearing the outfit you plan to run in.
5. Get Back to Basics
As race day nears, runners may get stressed when they overthink minute details. Many of these details are beyond their control and possibly irrelevant in the grand scheme of things! This causes anxiety levels to skyrocket and the runner to lose focus. The best way to deal with pre-race nerves is to get back to what it is all about: The joy of running! Ditch the watch and go for an easy, scenic shakedown run. Try to recall all the positives about running and why you do it.
In a Nutshell
Athletes need a healthy level of arousal to perform optimally during a race. Anxiety, a negative emotional state, may increase the level of arousal to the point where it may decrease performance. Through trial and error of the suggested tips runners may develop their own strategies keep their stress levels in check to better enjoy a competitive environment.
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