Race Day Nerves: Six Strategies for Managing the Jitters

race day nerves
Do you find your tummy filled with butterflies when race day rolls around? Do you start feeling queasy with anxiety about a big event you’ve been focused on for months?

You have put a lot of effort into getting to your race, worked hard on your preparation, and you (probably) care about the outcome. So feeling nervous is a completely normal and natural response. In fact, nerves can even be helpful in gearing you up for your race. BUT it is important not to let the nerves take over, and not let them turn into anxiety which hampers your performance or spoils your enjoyment of race day.

So here are our six strategies for managing those jitters…

1. Embrace the nerves

Let’s start by acknowledging that nerves can be very helpful as a means of stepping into race-day mode. I call it “putting on my race head”. To perform to our best we need some adrenaline. This is our instinctive response to a pressured situation, our body getting ready for fight-or-flight, and it is exactly what we need – it heightens our ability to perform to our best.

So if you feel nervous, try not to tell yourself that that’s a bad way to feel. Instead you can accept the emotions as part of the experience, and have a willingness to be open to them. Part of your experience of race day is probably that you feel a bit nervous, and you can use that to your advantage. The key is not to let them get the better of you.

2. Control the controllables

So although nerves can be useful, we don’t want them to become overpowering. We need strategies to keep them manageable and avoid feeling over-anxious.

A well-known phrase in sport psychology is “control the controllables”. This is about focusing on the things that are within your control, rather than wasting anxiety and energy on things which you can’t control. There is no point in worrying about the weather, or the actions/opinions of other people, or the hill on the race course. Instead, we can monitor and adapt our own responses to those things and how they affect us.

race day nerves
This can take some conscious effort, and ways to do this include:

  • Recognising and minimising triggers to anxiety. If you find yourself worrying about the wind or temperature, try consciously to change your thinking by reminding yourself that you can’t control the weather but that you can choose whether you let it disrupt your mindset.
  • Reducing stress factors that are under your control. For example, making sure you get to the start in plenty of time so you avoid the stress of being late or stuck at the back of the toilet queue!
  • Having a clear strategy for your race can give you a greater sense of control. If you have a race plan (for example to set off at a very steady pace, and push on from mid-way if you feel good) this will help you to feel that you are in control of your race rather than being at the mercy of external factors.

Ultimately, all you can do is your best. If you cross the finish line knowing you put all your effort in today, then you should go home feeling proud of yourself, whether or not you got the time you wanted. And the good news is, you are always in control of how hard you try!

3. Use practice and preparation before race day

Before race day, you can practice mental routines and responses to help you get into a positive mindset for race day.
For example:

  • Reflect on all the positive things you’ve done to get yourself to this race: the training effort you’ve put in, the resilience you’ve shown to overcome obstacles, the determination you’ve had to achieve your goal.
  • Draw confidence from all these positive reflections.
  • Visualise yourself during the race and crossing the finishing line, and imagine yourself feeling strong and happy.
  • Practise positive self-talk which you will draw on at the start and during the race. Using positive phrases such as “I can do it”, “I am strong”, “go for it” have been shown to produce a genuine improvement in performance in research done by sport psychologists. Developing your own phrases and mantras is an excellent way to concentrate, and stay focused on positive emotions.

Another way to use practise and preparation is to include less important races in your training programme to get more used to the feeling of race nerves. For example, if you’re training for a marathon, try doing a couple of 10k races and a half marathon during your training, and your exposure to race day nerves will help you to feel more prepared for how that feels on race day.

4. At the start: Breathing and relaxation

The start of a race can be emotionally charged, with everyone else feeling jittery too. Being surrounded by other people who are fidgety bags of nerves is not the best way to get yourself into a calm frame of mind.

So just before you head to the start pens, find a quiet space where you can close your eyes and be calm for a couple of minutes. Concentrate on deep breathing, and empty your mind of worries for a short space of time. Focus on the moment, and consciously try to relax your face, shoulders and hands. Then walk slowly for another couple of minutes until you feel calm and composed. You can continue to focus on deep breathing to remain calm as you join the start area.

5. Be present: Stay in the moment

race day nerves
Often worries are based on uncertainty about what might happen in the future: “Will I get the time I want?”, “What if I start to slow down?”, “How much is it going to hurt?”, “Will I be able do this?”, “What will my family/friends/club mates think of how I run?” and much more.

And then during the race, thinking too far ahead can be a bad move – “I still have eight miles left, how on earth will I keep up this pace?” etc.

A great strategy for overcoming this is a tactic similar to mindfulness: to bring your thoughts to the present moment. Focus on how things are right now. Before the start that could simply be to soak up the atmosphere, enjoy being with other runners and sharing what you love, and feel good about finally getting to race day. Notice what’s going on around you – pay attention to the sights and sounds, how your feet feel on the ground.

During the race, it is also about thinking about how you feel right now. If your mind wanders ahead and kicks off a panicky feeling about all the distance left in the race, just bring your thoughts back to the present by noticing your footfalls, paying attention to those around you. Using mantras or counting to get into a rhythm can work very well.

6. Focus on positivity and enjoyment

Finally, don’t forget that you don’t have to be here. If you were to give yourself a choice, perhaps as you walk to the start line, would you want to be here? No? If you want to go home, just do that – it’s fine, we’re not judging you. But if the answer is YES, you do want to be here, then it’s time to stop the whinging inside your head and start remembering how lucky you are to be able to run! You’ve worked hard to get here, so it’s time to start enjoying yourself.

It’s great to be here, it’s a privilege, and it’s an amazing experience to take part in something where everyone has an individual motivation to push themselves hard.

race day nerves

Enjoy yourself! Smiling releases endorphins, which make you feel happier and more relaxed.

Smile at other runners as you line up. Smile at the crowds who have turned out to cheer all the runners on. Smile at the marshals who are volunteering and giving up their free time. In fact, smiling is a small but genuinely beneficial movement that helps you to relax and enjoy yourself. Smiling relaxes the muscles in your face and neck, letting go of tension. It also releases endorphins, which help you to feel happy and which lower stress levels. So smile and you’ll feel a bit better!

Enjoy your race, put your best effort in, and be proud of yourself.

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  1. Maria says


    I want to be a runner but my 40 year old body is not cooperating :-). I am doing a half marathon with some friends this next month in Manchester. I have not done lots of running for lack of time and also energy to do it. Am I in trouble? probably but I know that I will try to have lots of fun even if I need to walk for half the way.

    Your articles are very inspirational. Many thanks.

    • Sarah Wightman says

      Hi Maria, Thanks for your comments. 40 is definitely not too old! But getting in to running can take time and patience. Just do what you can manage, and keep it enjoyable, and that way you’re more likely to stick with it. By all means jog/walk the half marathon, but with a little more time and patience you’ll find running comes more easily to you. Run/walking is an excellent strategy to get started. Good luck! Sarah x

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