9 Strategies To Master Your Race Day Mindset + Control Pre-Race Anxiety

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You’ve done all your training and your workouts have gone well, but when it comes to race day, you feel like a nervous wreck. Suddenly, you’re doubting your abilities, feeling brand new niggles and pains, and wishing you hadn’t signed up for the race. You find yourself wanting to adjust your race day goals and wondering if you can even make it to the finish. Sound familiar?

It doesn’t have to be your first time toeing the starting line of a race to experience race day jitters and lack a positive race day mindset. In fact, many experienced runners feel race day nerves nearly every time they get ready to pin on their race bib and one up in the starting coral.

Sports psychologists say that the mental component of distance running can be as important to overall performance as your physical conditioning, so having the right race day mindset can sometimes be the deciding factor between a new PR or a disappointing performance.

In this guide, we will talk about mastering your race day mindset and calming pre-race nerves to give you the mental edge you need to smash your PR and capitalize on all the awesome training you’ve done.

We will cover: 

  • Is It Bad To Have Pre-Race Anxiety?
  • Why Pre-Race Nerves Can Be Good
  • Why Too Much Anxiety Before a Race Can Be Detrimental
  • 9 Strategies to Reduce Pre-Race Nerves And Improve Your Race Day Mindset

Let’s get started!

A chalkboard that reads "your mindset matters".

A little anxiety before a race is normal, and can even be helpful.

However, if you’re finding that your nerves are getting the better of you, or that you are filled with self-doubt and negative thoughts come race day, you might benefit from working on your race day mindset and practicing some relaxation exercises to calm your pre-race jitters, boost your self-confidence, and increase your focus.

Is It Bad to Have Pre-Race Anxiety?

Anxiety, in general, gets a bad rap. No one wants to feel anxious, and it’s an unpleasant physical and emotional experience. However, some degree of anxiety before a race can actually be beneficial.

In sports psychology, there’s a concept known as the Inverted U Hypothesis, which posits that optimal athletic performance occurs when emotional arousal levels are moderate. 

Essentially, if you envision a graph where the level of your anxiety or emotional arousal is on the x-axis and your performance outcome is plotted along the y-axis, the graph of the relationship would be an upside-down U. 

Near the origin of the graph, where your arousal levels are very low and you feel rather lackadaisical, you won’t be keyed up and motivated enough to perform well. As you get more emotionally geared up, your performance increases up to a certain point, where it peaks. 

Beyond this midway point, you’re too anxious and agitated and your performance again will suffer.

In other words, no pre-race anxiety isn’t necessarily a good thing, but too much can be detrimental.

A woman flexing her bicep muscle.

Why Pre-Race Nerves Can Be Good

Have you ever had the experience where the starting gun goes off and you blast off the starting line, get swept along in the crowd, and cruise through the first mile of the race well under your projected split based on your goal pace?

You might even double-check your watch, dubious that you indeed ran that split because it felt much easier? The reason it’s common to go out too hard in a race but barely register that the pace is too fast is largely due to adrenaline.

“Anxiety”, or “pre-race” jitters can increase adrenaline, which can help you run faster, focus better, and feel less discomfort while running, all of which can be welcomed perks for anyone running a race (as long as you temper your pace and don’t drop the hammer too much!).

Also, pre-race nerves are indicative that you’re invested in the race and care about your success. For this reason, it’s also helpful to reframe your pre-race nerves and try to view them as excitement for the race ahead.

A woman meditating working on her race day mindset.

Why Too Much Anxiety Before a Race Can Be Detrimental 

It only takes one time of excessive pre-race jitters to know how much anxiety can play with your head and color the entire race experience. There are several potential consequences to letting your pre-race jitters spiral into bad anxiety, including the following:

  • Wasted energy before the race even starts.
  • Low confidence, negative self-doubt, reluctance to run.
  • Poor focus and irritability.

Any or all of these can detract from your race performance as well as your enjoyment of the race experience, which is why controlling pre-race anxiety and getting into a positive race day mindset can be the difference between a tough day on the course and an amazing time.

A person listening to something on her headphones, smiling.

9 Strategies to Reduce Pre-Race Nerves and Improve Your Race Day Mindset

Here are our top tips for calming pre-race jitters and setting your positive race day mindset:

#1: Trust Your Training

If pre-race nerves have your confidence waning, it can be helpful to review your training log and remind yourself of all the good workouts you’ve done. The race is simply your chance to show off the effects of each of those workouts: you are ready.

#2: Listen to Music

Calming music can be both distracting and soothing. Race starts often blast really inspiring songs, but this can get you too amped. It’s ok to plug into your own tunes and set the mood you need.

#3: Try a Podcast or Audiobook 

Some runners love the familiar banter between hosts of a favorite podcast or getting lost in an audiobook to calm and distract their minds before a big race, especially while waiting around for the gun to go off.

A person with their eyes closed looking toward the sky.

#4: Recite a Mantra

A positive mantra like “I am ready”, I can do this”, or “I am strong and fast” can be a great way to shift your race day mindset. 

Research suggests that the brain believes what we say to it, so in response to a positive mantra for pre-race anxiety, your brain produces the same feelings that you would expect to experience if the mantra you are reciting were true.

In other words, you can convince your brain and body to feel calm, capable, and ready to race.

#5: Have a Race Plan

A plan for before the race (how to get there, where to park, when and what to eat, etc.) will help you feel prepared. Similarly, a race strategy or plan can provide the same degree of comfort and preparedness.

#6: Try Visualization

Visualize your success by shutting your eyes and trying to actually conjure up a mental video of you running your best race yet. Picture the sights, sounds, smells, and feelings.

A person with their eyes closed looking peaceful.

#7: Use Mindfulness Techniques

Mindfulness techniques like meditation, yoga, boxed breathing, other breathwork practices, and progressive muscle relaxation can calm your nervous system, increase your focus, reduce pre-race anxiety, and slow your heart rate.

#8: Control What You Can and Let Go Of the Uncontrollable

Much of the anxiety we feel about race day hinges upon things outside our control like bad weather or crowded Port-a-potty lines. Do what you can to prepare for the things you can prepare for (rain, wind, no toilet paper, etc.), and then commit to letting go of things outside of your control.

#9: Smile

You know the saying, “Fake it ‘til you make it?” As it turns out, this may be true when it comes to conquering your pre-race jitters. Smiling can help trick your brain into feeling happier and can crowd out negative thoughts and emotions. 

A close-up of someone smiling.

Studies have even shown that smiling while running can reduce the perception of effort, making your race pace feel easier. Hey, if Meb could wave and smile at the blistering pace he was holding, we can too!

Now that you have a few ideas to keep those race-day nerves in check and improve your race day mindset, you’re ready to crush your next big challenge!

If you need some motivational words to give you a hand with your race day mindset, check out our 18 Best Motivational Running Mantras.

A person with their hands pressed up against their chest.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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