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Battling Race-Day Anxiety: 10 Tips for Dealing with Doubt

By Katherine Lackey, 05/04/15, 12:45AM EDT

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How to tame the beast.

I used to have a rough time before 10-milers and half marathons. And when I’d stop to take walk breaks during those races, I felt like I’d completely given up. I wasn’t injured. I wasn’t really hurting that much. But I just gave into the voice that told me to give up and walk. It happened after the halfway points of two races and led to numerous walk breaks over the last 3-5 miles.

Flash forward to my first two big races this year. I suffered some major race-day anxiety — even race-week anxiety.

Here are 10 tips I’ve learned about quieting that doubting voice in the back of your head.

1. Be prepared

If you’re already anxious about race-day morning, there’s no reason to be rushing around at zero dark thirty trying to find your favorite pair of shorts to wear at the race. Set everything out the night before. Consider having two outfits picked out in case you have a last-minute urge to wear something else or the weather changes. A five-degree difference at the start can make a difference in my decision to wear shorts or capris.

Likewise, figure out your hydration strategy and take a final look at the course to know the locations of water stations, mile markers and porta-potties, especially at the start and finish line. This doesn’t mean you can’t decide while you’re running the race to stop at a water station you weren’t planning to or even skip one when you feel you don’t need anything. It’s all about knowing where everything is beforehand so you feel like you know the course.

2. Remind yourself why you’re doing this

What spurred you to sign up for the race in the first place? Was it a warm-up race ahead of a bigger event? Did you figure you’d just do it as a training run and have fun? Were you hoping to PR? Were you just wowed at the awesome medal and wanted to add it to your collection?

Whatever the reason, remind yourself why you’re running the race. Focus on reaching that goal or coming up with a new one — such as running without a time goal — if you find yourself getting too anxious.

3. Have a mantra

A couple of sayings I like to play in my head include “Just keep going,” “Finish strong,” “Just get to mile 6” and “Just have fun.” Having a phrase you can keep repeating to yourself during the race will motivate you to keep going and help push out the doubting voice that creeps into the back of your head.

4. Talk with a runner-friend

There’s no better therapy session than ranting to a runner-friend about why this race is making you so anxious. We’ve all been there, and friends are great sounding boards and advice-givers. Just talking about the stream-of-consciousness thoughts going through your mind about the race can have a profound effect. Airing everything out will lift a weight from your shoulders before your friend even has the opportunity to give advice.

5. Think of others

This one is particularly powerful during a race. Thinking of someone else takes the focus off on what little discomfort you’re feeling. Some people like to dedicate every mile of a big race to a specific person — a great idea.

I try to think of my dad (who is handicapped) or someone I know who is battling cancer, a rough breakup or some other hardship. You can also think of yourself. Think back to a time when you couldn’t run — whether that was because of injury or you simply hadn’t gotten into the sport yet. Then think of how great it feels to be running in the moment right now.

6. Break down the race into chunks

If you start out a race thinking about how far you have to go, it’s going to feel like it takes forever to get there. Instead, break down the race into chunks your brain can take. Whether that means focusing only on the next water station or getting up that big hill, having a focal point will make the miles fly by.

7. Remember your training runs

You put in the time to get in your training runs. Now is the time to recall them. If you can run nine miles on the dreadmill and it feels relatively easy, it’s probably safe to say you can physically cross the finish line of a half marathon. Remember the great training runs you had when running felt effortless, as well as the harder speedwork runs that built up your fitness. You’ve got this!

8. Tune into tunes

Running with music is a powerful mood-booster and distraction. If you’re worried about getting through the tough parts of a race, consider bringing your tunes with you. I typically run with one earbud in if I use music during a race so that I can still be safe and hear others coming up behind me. But just that little bit is enough to help get me through the tougher parts of a course. I also like to take out my earbuds completely during the last mile or so of a race to really focus on the great sensation of reaching that finish line.

9. Visualize a great finish

Visualization is another great aid. Picturing yourself crossing the finish line successfully — and reaching one or all of your goals — can really give you the boost you need to kick your run up a notch and beat away any doubts.

10. Don’t watch the clock

A watched pot doesn’t boil. Same goes for a watched GPS watch. Ever notice when you look at it too often it seems like a tenth of a mile takes five million minutes to complete? Try not to be constantly looking down at your wrist. Lock into a pace near the start and keep it, only checking in every half-mile to mile. Better yet, consider leaving the watch at home and just focusing on the run.

I hope you find these tips helpful in reducing race-day anxiety.

For more from Katharine Lackey, visit Kat Runs D.C.

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