Training Tips: Race Day Fears and How to Overcome Them

by Karl Gruber
Many of the runners I have coached and/or run with are usually preparing for an upcoming race. While running a race does not have to be a part of your plan just because you are a runner, somehow the challenge of doing one seems to creep into the picture eventually. Racing seems to be the next natural step for most runners as their capabilities and fitness increase over time.

Most runners, at some point in time, decide they would like to see what they’ve got physically and use the challenge of a race to see what they can accomplish. Especially for new runners, a race can seem like a gargantuan goal. “Wait. What? You think I can run a half marathon? Heck, it was only six months ago, I could barely get through a mile of running!” And with the challenge of a race, at any distance, many fears can pop up – some you didn’t even know you had. 

Of course, the best way to overcome your fear of racing is to train properly. Take the necessary weeks (or months for longer races) to slowly and progressively build up your running fitness and endurance so that your doubts about whether you can finish the race will become a non-factor. Unfortunately, many fears about racing don’t concern your fitness level, but instead, involve mental aspects. As the late, great Hall of Fame baseball player Yogi Berra once said, “Baseball is 90% mental and the other half is physical.”

Obviously, the word “baseball” needs to be replaced with the word “running” in this case. Despite the humor of his “Yogi-ism,” this quote is pretty spot on. Once your body is trained and ready to race, most of it is mental, and that is where your fears are generated.

Here are some key aspects to work on in order to overcome your fears about an upcoming race.
  • First, just sign up for the race! As the famous slogan goes, “Just do it!” It’s a classic case of “the first step is the hardest” and registration is the first step.
  • Visualize success. Picture exactly how you want to run your race, how you want to feel while racing it, and how you’ll come across the finish line smiling and feeling great! In his small but wisdom-packed book Unleash the Champion, author and record-holder Denny Dicke shares, “I can’t even count the number of times I heard my old coach say, ‘SEE CLEARLY’ when referring what we wanted to accomplish.” 
  • Check out the course in advance of the race. I’ll never forget just how nervous I was before competing in my very first triathlon. Because of this, I visited the event site and stood right near the swim exit that then led to the bike portion of the race. I visualized myself throughout the whole process and saw myself doing well. Come race day, I was not nearly so fearful and nervous because I had rehearsed it all in my mind the day before.
  • Continue this process by either driving, cycling or running the course in advance. Again, this will reduce any unknowns and fears you may have about the course so it is already familiar to you. Your personal motto come race day should be “no race day surprises!”
  • Create a race day gear checklist. It is absolutely amazing how easy it is to forget something important because your mind is so preoccupied with logistics like where to park, what time to get up, etc. By creating a checklist, you can lay out everything you need for race day on the evening prior to the race. Upon rising the next day, all you need is already assembled so you can focus on the race itself.
  • Come race day, it is very important for you to focus on the present moment. Denny Dickie states that “…when you are performing your particular athletic skill, it is extremely important to keep your thoughts in the present moment. To perform effectively, you must learn that right now is all that matters.” This is wise advice. Focusing on the now simply does not allow any remaining fears about the race itself to creep in.
All of these tips can really help to discourage any fears swirling around in your head about your next race. When it comes to running races, the bottom line is trusting yourself and your training. And if you have a coach, then you most definitely need to trust the racing advice they give you. 

After you have successfully practiced all of the suggestions written here, Denny Dicke believes “by the time the day of your athletic event occurs you will wake up and feel like it is Christmas morning. You will feel a sense of great anticipation that you cannot wait to get started. That’s confidence. That’s a strong sense of belief which your mental conditioning has instilled in you."

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