Start-line anxiety and how to overcome it

Dan HAWORTH, one of Trail Running's #CommitedInov8 ambassadors, offers his tips on the psychology of last-minute race preparation

 

British summertime and hoards of scantily clad folk eagerly await their turn in a field filling up with cars. Hopeful glances up at the blue sky, praying for it to hold off for the big act. Excited faces chatter, recognising one another from across the grass, as a nervous energy drives the speed of talk. It could be a scene from Sunday afternoon at Glastonbury, what with the tents, PA system, portaloos, threat of rain, strange-looking specimens and that. But no, this is the start line of the Tebay Fell Race, the British and English Fell Running Championships next counter. Around the field most of the 450 or so runners are performing their own personalised pre-race rituals, the majority of which involve ridding the body of any excess liquid or solid matter, alongside throwing in a few noncommittal stretches to keep up appearances.

Everyone has their own little ticks and tricks for reassurance. I like to pick spots on my face, or chew the side of my would-be moustache. On race day it is all too easy to overthink and burden yourself with the pressure of what's to come, and we try to settle ourselves with rituals, such as having ten trips to the toilet, repeatedly repinning race numbers on and off and on again until they are perfectly parallel with the lines on your vest, and untying then retying your shoe laces.

You have been training especially for this specific date on the calendar. It could be a championship race, your first parkrun, a half-marathon, or a charity fun run. For whatever reason, whoever we are and whyever we run, start-line anxiety can affect all of us and manifests in many ways. It can undermine your confidence and belief, and ultimately affect your enjoyment and sense of achievement of the race at hand.

Alternatively we can use this pent up energy in a more positive way and use it to drive us towards success.  So what approaches can help one to overcome start line anxiety? How can you ensure you feel mentally prepared for a race? And in what ways are we able to reassure ourselves that we can are capable of doing our best on the day? Emergency bog roll in your bumbag is a good start.

Preparation

Pre-race nerves are the grumblings fear that something is not going to go to plan. At Tebay I thought that the main fear was of blowing up quickly as a result of the heat, a dirty big climb six miles in, and getting swept up in the occasion with too fast runners everywhere leading me to temptation. I thought: "No problem, I'll just take it steady and not worry about what anyone else is doing, that way I'll be running at my own pace and keep within my limits." Yes, okay, the famous pre-race self-chat where we promise ourselves to be sensible, to know our limits, and to save some gas for that certain bit of that certain mile. The problem is that the pre-race plans always seem to decrease in potency with the countdown to the race's start. 3. 2. 1.  Plan?! What plan? Go for it!

Make a plan, they will say. Stick to it at whatever cost. You can do that, and perhaps in a flatter race with specific target times, such as a park 5k, London Marathon, or different ultra races. Regimented structures and split times are helpful for the minute preparation of body and mind. Hit that split. Make that time. Train at tempo for this distance. Be prepared.

But running off-road, on fell, trail, or bridle-track has more diversions than distance and time. There are ups, downs, bogs, tussocks, heather, rocks, boulders, getting lost, bad weather, good weather, quad excruciating ascents, and some nice views, all to speed you up or down. Some may argue that to attempt to quantify and put the pressure of a specific time for covering a specific amount of mountain space can take away from immersion in the experience of being outdoors. There is a danger of being imprisoned by staring at your watch, if you have one, rather than experiencing the liberation of landscape.

So we should all slow down and spend more time skipping through the meadows, bounding up and down the fells with a leisurely gate, while whistling once-heard folk song melodies which we learnt from a passing wise old shepherd Isn't that right?

But it's a race? 

Yeh but you've just driven half way up the country to take part, enjoy it...

But it's a race! 

Enjoy it.

But...

It would seem there is a battle between two purposes of running races. 1. To enjoy and 2. To compete. But is one exclusive of the other?

I don't think so.

The key to enjoying and competing together is in the balance between preparations – in other words, what you have done before the race and its relationship to the shape of the challenge that lies ahead and how the nature, length and type of race relates to your training. Challenge and opportunity.

If someone feels strong from the inside this will translate to how they move and interact with the outside. It is not about the anxiety generating what ifs (what if I go to fast, too slow, what if I slip, what if I blow up?), but rather all about the confidence-building what haves (I have run further than this, I have run harder than this, I have climbed bigger hills than this, I have descended as stupidly as this).

The "optimal zone" of performance is described as "flow" by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. His theory is that we perform best when we believe our capacity to do something is balanced with an appropriate level of challenge in a given opportunity.

Basically, if we think something is too hard for us we grow anxious, and if we think it is too easy we get bored. The best scenario is when we are pushed just beyond our perceived limits, meeting small proximal goals that stretch and reward us. We are spurred on forwards by our successes to continue onward and upwards. In this zone we perform with increased awareness, a sense of empowerment, growth, development, as well as experiencing huge enjoyment!

A good fell run is flow in action

We constantly make small goals for our selves: Keep up with the man/woman in red ahead, overtake the man/woman in red, maintain this slightly faster than planned pace up to the next stylesave some energy and power walk this next hill, spot your next footing on a rutted descent, land without breaking your ankle, and so on. Each time we score one of these tiny goals we become more confident, and gradually our belief and knowledge of our own capacity grows, which in turn allows us to attempt greater challenges with increased sense of contentment and confidence.

To race well is to have the knowledge in body and mind that you have prepared well. How you prepare depends upon what race you are doing. This is my first season of fell racing regularly, and to do well at fell running it seems you have to be good at everything. So the best way I can prepare myself for the grandiose challenge of being good at everything is to run lots in lots of different ways to develop my know-how. The big three for aims are speed, hills, and stamina. If I can build a strong platform of increased skills and know-how,  then the variety of challenges in different races are more likely going to match my skill level, which will hopefully plonk me in Csikszentmihalyi's "contentment zone".

If you know you have recently run balls-out on the limit for 10 minutes down a runable two-mile descent in the Peak District, it gives you the confidence that you can transfer this 100 miles up the country and do the same thing two weeks later on the final fling down into Tebay.

Runners who have and do train regularly in the hills will of course ooze more confidence and strength as they pull themselves up Blease Fell than the others who are less prepared.

Furthermore, having the knowledge of how it feels to be running and also how it feels to have successfully run 10/15/20/25 or more miles, is knowledge that you can conquer these nine miles and you have survived similar if not more arduous previous ordeals!

And most important (arguably) is that, by being prepared for the challenge, you will enjoy it more!

It's about the what haves not the what ifs

In preparing your body and mind you are now well on their way to hitting the start line confidently, and the good news is there are still a couple of tricks and tips to help you on the run up to the day.

Now, going into a race knowing the route is always a bonus! First, you're going to perform better with the confidence that you’re running in the right direction, rather than having to stop to mess around with a big map flapping around your face at every juncture. Secondly, going on a recce of a route lets you know where to attempt to save some energy for, how long you need to hold on for at the ridiculous pace that is being set up the first hill, and at what point you can start running with your eye-balls rolling into the back of your head towards the finish. To recce a route is to get information on a place, and helps avoid chaotic scenes such as those seen on the video doing the rounds of the start of the Tebay fell race, where competitors zig-zag across each other in a mish-mash of confusion at the option of taking a steep tarmac hairpin or a grassy bank. The information gained through a recce is simply another weapon in your arsenal of self-belief and confidence. 

On the other hand, rather than being a reassurance, knowing what lies ahead may also have the adverse effect of striking fear into even the most leather-skinned veteran. You may also recce your opponents via past race results or even more handily on Strava if you are competitively inclined, though this may be detrimental to your optimal state of flow and induce further anxiety through pure fear of their obscene weekly mileage.

However, it's not always possible to recce a route, or you may choose not to. If this is the case, the allure of the unknown may even work in your favour and cause you to go so foolishly fast at the beginning of the race, that by the time you get to the main hazard or obstacle (see hill) you are already so far ahead that no one will catch you anyway. The "ignorance is bliss" approach may be deemed high-risk by many, but again with a healthy pair of lungs and some recent miles in the legs, a well-prepared runner will usually run well.

Taking care of your innards is the final point for consideration. Midweek races are a real nutritional nightmare, sitting at that point where dinner is wearing off, and tea would interfere too much with motion. At last week's Black Rocks Fell Race the pounding down the High Peak Trail to the final flat mile along the canal to the finish was very nearly marred by an impromptu appearance of a once-digested Gregg's sausage, beans, and cheese melt. Alongside alcohol and tobacco consumption, some people take their nutrition intake with elevated degrees of seriousness. Others don't. What is most important is to find what works best for you.

Before an evening summertime fell race, Matlock AC's Shelly D swears by a single bottle of beer the night before. On the day he has a very large bowl of pesto pasta as a late lunch at 2pm, and a light homemade faux-kebab-shop snack of a toasted pitta bread, shredded cooked chicken breast Co-op sandwich filler, dressed with a single iceberg leaf and a lone back-of-the-tea-spoon-spread dollop of no-frills budget mayonnaise, acting as a protein pick me up late in the afternoon.

Leading local ultra runner, Brad 'the Stubber' Stone packs his body full of more than 1000 calories of Wetherspoons finest morning meats, eggs, and toast products on race day. Two hours before any long race, the man swears by the full English and rumour has it that has been his secret weapon in his gradual domination from the South to the North of England's silly-length race scene.

And Ben Mounsey shared that his pre-race routine, among many things sworn to secrecy, is the drinking of beetroot shots for the week up to the race, and use of hydration salts in water. With some cracking results recently it certainly seems to work well for him!

All of these runners have completely unique preparations for a race, and perhaps it is just as much the routine, as well as the food and drink itself, that again feeds the sense of security found when we ensure we have prepared ourselves appropriately. 

We prepare ourselves properly so we can enjoy the race knowing we are doing the best that we can. Knowing we are properly prepared is the best knowledge for alleviating pre-race anxiety. Be prepared.

Top tips for avoiding pre-race anxiety.

  1. Flow is life. Focus on building your perception of your skills and abilities towards meeting a balance with the level challenge.
  2. Train for races by running in a similar way that you will run in the races so you know that you can run that way when you are racing.
  3. Develop strange habits and rituals to perform as you warm up for races. Not only will this ensure you feel secure in yourself before the start, but it also will deter other competitors from wanting to get too close to you during the race and could help you gain positions.
  4. Recce the route or run routes that have similar distances/elevation, then afterwards decide if you really actually want to do the race.
  5. Take the pressure off and use some races as training if you want to save your legs for another event or pretend that was always your plan, as you try and fail to think of other valid excuses for underperforming as everyone sets off too fast for you at the start.
  6. Repeatedly question yourself, asking if you are enjoying running or are starting to get too competitive. Make a plan to focus more on the enjoying/competing element of running (delete as appropriate) and then revert back to exactly how you always were and will be. Repeat phrases such as 'It's all good fun' through grimaced teeth.
  7. Eat and drink what you know works well for you. Learn through trial and error, beware that this may lend itself to scenes of a graphic nature.
  8. Flow really is life. Keep focusing on building your perception of your skills and abilities towards meeting a balance with the level of challenge. It's all good fun!