Laying awake in bed the night before a race or feeling nauseous on race morning are common among athletes, so don’t get nervous about being nervous! It’s completely normal to be nervous or excited before a race.
Here are four tips to help you achieve an optimal balance where you’re excited to race but also confident and focused enough to execute what you’ve trained for:
1. DEVELOP A PRE-PERFORMANCE ROUTINE
Routines give us a sense of control and help us forget things and avoid mistakes. Many athletes write out their schedule for the day or two prior to the race, some use this technique every day to help organize their lives and practice this idea of performance routine. By frequently following and refining your timing and preparation for things like eating, warmup and training time, you will have a logical set of steps to go through automatically to reach your optimal performance.
Knowing which foods agree with your stomach and when you should eat to boost energy and avoid being that person throwing up after the first hill is quite helpful. Race nerves become an issue when we let ourselves think too much and start making last-minute decisions to consume a different type of carbohydrate powder, change tires or wear different shorts. Stick to what has worked in training, focus only on the moment you are in on race day and then further refine your preparation, equipment or nutrition after the race. If you have the hours before the race scripted out then you can remain focused on the next step and not on random scenarios that haven’t happened yet.
2. PRACTICE RACE DAY
Nerves are usually the result of being confronted with unfamiliar experiences. It can be nerve-wracking when you don’t know what to expect and whether you can handle it. If you train like you will race, with all the same equipment, and challenge yourself to practice your weak points, you will feel prepared at the starting line.
If you are nervous about race starts, warm-up just like you do at big races and then practice ‘rubbing elbows’ and starting the race hard. Road group rides and criterium practices are great places for all cyclists to gain pack skills and get comfortable with the intensity of racing. If you find yourself getting nervous or not being able to focus on the race, you will benefit from some time at yoga class or working with a coach or sports psychologist to develop relaxation techniques, such as focusing on deep breaths.
3. VISUALIZE AND STAY POSITIVE
While you may shudder at the kooky notion of imagining the race — or visualization, in general — it is a very powerful technique for rehearsal used by many top athletes. I advise my coaching clients to spend time the week before a race studying it by watching old race video and headcam course footage and then mentally working through the course line by line, section by section until they memorize the whole track. This takes time and practice, but it never fails to make races less intimidating. Road racers can go through scenarios and also be familiar with the course profile and lap numbers. How will you react to an early break-a-way or position yourself for a sprint? Being familiar with the course and the scenario eliminates more unknowns, and visualizing yourself in these situations helps you experience the challenge before you get there.
4. ACT THE PART
By acting I mean do the work you need to do to be prepared and confident on race day. Stand confidently, breathe deeply and execute the skills you’ve practiced. Avoid the traps of ‘self-handicapping’ or speaking badly about your preparation or skills, focus on your plan for the start and race ahead of you. Too often a nervous athlete stands toward the back of the pack in the start corral and thinks too much about the race outcome, but not about the immediate tasks of the start and early portions of the race. Showing up with a clean and functioning bike and appropriate clothing for the competition helps ensure you feel confident and like the competitor you want to be.
Your nerves before the next big race won’t be gone if you use these ideas, but remember that’s not the point. We need to be excited to achieve our best focus and results. Learn to embrace the butterflies as a sign you’re excited for the challenge ahead and your body is ramping up to execute the race. Stay excited and focused on your routine and goals for the race, and you will find each one goes better than the last.