Training and Motivation: dealing with pre-race anxiety

Coach Joe English

Coach Joe English

I have a number of athletes that are getting ready for the Marathons this weekend. With the race on Sunday, I’m thinking about what’s going through their minds. If I had a way to peek into their brains and read their thoughts, this is probably what I’d hear:


You pick the explicative to fill in for the XXXXs.

The truth is that we all get anxious coming into a marathon. There are a lot of reasons for this. For one thing, if this is your first marathon, then you have a lot of doubt about the outcome. You’ve never run this far and every time you’ve told someone you were running a marathon, they gave you that look like, “really, that’s soooo far!”

But there’s more to it than that. You’ve spent four or five months preparing for the event. How many things have you put that much energy into? Maybe your wedding if you got married or maybe a big exam. And you were probably nervous as all heck on those days when they finally arrived.

You’ve been training, and hoping, and struggling, and succeeding, and failing and doing all kinds of things getting ready for your marathon. And it’s all building up in your head. The one thing that I can say without a doubt is that the vast majority of marathon runners, first time or twentieth, think about their upcoming event probably many times each day in the week before the race – it’s basically always on their minds and in their thoughts.

Oh and yes, there’s that competitive thing too. We all have goals (which are a good thing), but there’s that word “race” that goes along with the event. And there’s that big clock, and talk of timing chips, and cut-off times, and time-limits, and pace groups. So even if we are not overtly thinking about being competitive like the faster runners up front, competition is creeping into our thinking by our very human nature.

Are you nervous yet?

Here’s the thing about pre-race anxiety and nerves. They are really a good thing, disguised as something that feels bad. Yes, anxiety feels bad, but it is something that we can actually tap into to perform better on race day. To put it another way, anxiety is a symptom of the mental preparation that you’re going through to get ready for the event. The fact that you’re anxious and nervous, means that your mind understands the importance of the event and is getting your body ready for it.

All of this build-up you’re feeling is an intense form of focus. You’re thinking about the event frequently, reviewing the details in your head, obsessing over details, because you are focused on the event. That may feel bad, but it is a very good thing. Sometimes I worry about myself, when I’m not keyed up about an event just a little – it may be a sign that I’m not focused enough and I may have forgotten something.

And, anxiety can manifest itself both physically and mentally before a race. Let me give you a quick story that illustrates the physical way that nervousness may manifest itself. One time, I was with my friend Coach Dean at the Vancouver Half-Marathon in Vancouver B.C. It was about five minutes to race time and I was jumping up and down – literally jumping up and down. I had a heart rate monitor on and Dean grabbed my arm. He said, “Joe, calm down. What’s your heart rate at?” I looked down at my monitor and it was about 140 beats per minute -usually I’d be about in the mid-150s to 160s when running at race pace and I hadn’t even started running yet!

This simple example has always been something I’ve thought about – my body was fired up and ready and focused before the race, because it wanted me to be ready to run. You’re going through that in the week before the race, but on a mental, rather than physical scale.

I’ll wrap-up with some tips that I always pass along to runners before a marathon that help with the nerves:
1) Anxiety and nervousness are positive sign that you are preparing mentally and physically for the race. They are a sign of focus. Embrace, rather than fearing these signs.

2) Focus on all that you’ve done to prepare for the event, rather than focusing on unknowns or things that can go wrong.

3) Don’t obsess about things that are out of your control. Think about things that you can manage – your pace, your hydration, your fuel input – rather than things you can’t.

4) React and plan for contingencies, rather than worrying about problems. For example, if you find out the weather is going to be hot, prepare for it and take solace that you are getting prepared, rather than freaking out about it.

5) Calm down. Relax and have fun in your event. Remember the reasons that you’re doing it. You’re hopefully not there to mentally torture yourself – so think about why you did this and that you’ll have the memories of this event for the rest of your life.

Good luck runners. As always, let me know if you have questions and please feel free to post comments here.

Coach Joe English, Portland Oregon, USA
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