Turns out, mental "exercise" might be as important as every mile you run.

By By Mariko Zapf
May 16, 2018
Photo: Hero Images/Getty Images

The night before my first half marathon, my heart pounded wildly and negative thoughts flooded my consciousness through the wee hours of the morning. I arrived at the start a frenzied mess, wondering why on earth I had agreed to such a ridiculous endeavor. Yet, 13.1 miles later, I crossed the finish line and experienced a sense of accomplishment second only to childbirth. It was that intense and glorious feeling that officially hooked me on running. (These 13 signs mean you're officially a runner.)

That was nearly six years and a dozen half marathons ago. You might think all that additional experience would teach me to be cool and confident before a race-but, nope, the opposite has happened. Now, the jitters creep up several weeks in advance of a race instead of days. I don't just toss and turn the night before an event; I have difficulty sleeping the entire week. The worst part? Anxiety has turned the feelings of excitement into ones of dread and "Why am I doing this?" thoughts. I just wasn't having fun anymore. What gives?

Why You Get Performance Anxiety Before a Race

Psychologically speaking, pre-race anxiety is caused by uncertainty surrounding an event such as weather, course, logistics, and performance-and by a fear of our reaction to that unknown, explains Rob Udewitz, Ph.D., of Sport & Performance Psychology of New York. Those jitters are often exacerbated by a fixation on the outcome or possibly social embarrassment.

"Pre-race anxiety triggers a fight, flight, or freeze response, as if you were being chased by a bear," says Udewitz. "Your pulse races and blood moves from your stomach to your heart and lungs, which produces nausea and impairs digestion, resulting in loose stool." This is a phenomenon even elite athletes experience (and is the biological explanation for those long pre-race porta-potty lines).

"Beyond the fear response, anxiety also causes your mood to plummet, and your focus either narrows or becomes too scattered," says Leah Lagos, Psy.D., who specializes in sports psychology and psychotherapy in New York City. She refers to this state as "busy brain." If you spend too much time in this anxious, "busy brain" state of mind, it has the power to negatively impact both your enjoyment and performance.

Runners looking for a quick anxiety-busting fix, sadly, are going to turn up empty-handed. Similar to shortcutting a training plan, a few deep breaths here and there are going to do little to keep those pre-race jitters in check.

Luckily, there are several highly effective methods for controlling the disruptive feelings that just might make you calmer pre-race and in all aspects of life-if you follow them as religiously as you follow your training plan. The following five mind-boosting exercises are recommended by professional coaches and sports psychologists but can have a significant impact on amateur athletes as well. (See: How Olympic Runner Deena Kastor Trains for Her Mental Game)

Focus on building your mental strength the same way you prioritize every interval workout, squat, and foam rolling session, and watch your love for running-and performance-get a serious boost.

1. Accept the incoming anxiety.

First things first: Not all nerves are evil, says Lagos. You should expect to be at least a little nervous. "Anxiety often closes the gap between potential and ability," she explains. It's when a runner becomes obsessed with the race outcome and other outside influences that anxiety can become counterproductive.

Udewitz encourages his clients to cultivate a curiosity about their nerves: Rather than simply enduring the discomfort or attempting to control it, he urges you to explore what is going on and embrace the unknown. Udewitz believes that trying to control anxiety produces a rigidity by race day that negatively impacts performance. Instead, pay attention to what exactly is making you feel anxious or jittery. Use it as an opportunity to learn more about yourself and discover what is driving those negative feelings.

Trilatino Triathlon Club head coach Danny Artiga tells all his athletes up front: "You are never going to fully get rid of anxiety. Don't try to fight it. Expect the anxiety, welcome it, and ride it out." Remember Franklin D. Roosevelt talking about fear? There's a logic to not fearing fear itself.

Try it: Note on your paper or electronic calendar one week before a race, "Anxiety coming soon! It's not just going to be okay, it's going to be awesome."

2. Practice mindfulness.

You've probably heard of "being mindful," but mindfulness is a liberally used term that many people don't actually understand. Mindfulness is simply the ability to spend a prolonged period of time focused on the present moment (something super difficult in the age of the push notification), according to Michael Gervais, Ph.D., a sports psychologist who works with Olympians and pro athletes. This includes awareness of your thoughts, emotions, body, and environment.

The most important thing to know is that mindfulness cannot exist in the presence of noise. Noise, in this case, is "what other people think of us, anxiety, self-criticism, and a fixation on a particular finish time, which all draw us out of the present moment," says Gervais. Mindfulness is a skill, not a state of being, which means it takes practice to achieve and maintain the ability to truly tune in. Similar to the commitment we make to achieving faster leg turnover or relaxing our shoulders, spending more time in the present moment boosts confidence, optimism, and calm. (See: Why Every Runner Needs a Mindful Training Plan)

To develop the skill of mindfulness, Gervais suggests a single-point focus practice: relentlessly focusing on one thing, whether it's your breath, a dot on a wall, a mantra, or a sound. (You can even practice mindfulness with tea.) Got distracted? It doesn't mean you've failed. In fact, that's what helps you cultivate better awareness. He advises that you gently return to the practice and keep going. Research suggests that a minimum daily mindfulness practice of 10 minutes is beneficial to reduce anxiety, and other studies show that a 20 minutes mindfulness practice is even better-but both can be effective after just eight weeks.

Try it: Identify a time in your day when a 10-minute practice is most likely to happen, and try Gervais' single-point focus practice. (Top trainers swear by a first-thing-in-the-AM meditation.)

Need more specific guidelines? Lagos recommends this specific breathing technique: Inhale for four seconds and exhale for six. You can practice this technique in challenging life situations like sitting in traffic, waiting for an appointment, or coping with a difficult parenting moment. "Through breath, we eventually are able to shift our physiology to shift our psychology," she says. (You can also try this meditation for anxiety from Headspace.)

3. Try visualization.

You may have heard the buzz of using visualization to improve athletic performance. While this makes sense for, say, executing the perfect cliff dive or sticking the landing on a gymnastics vault, the technique can be used for activities like running, too.

Visualization is effective because it activates the same pathways in the brain that are fired up when you're actually doing the activity. So when you thoroughly visualize yourself having a terrific race, that helps train your body to execute what you've imagined. (Here's more on why visualization works, and how to do it.)

Lagos recommends envisioning yourself running the race-the entire process from approaching the start line to navigating potentially difficult moments, like hitting the proverbial wall. "Then, repeat the process, but this time as if in the third person, watching a video of a race," she says.

It helps to use all five senses when activating an image, including the environment, says Gervais. Slow the image down, speed it up, and view it from different angles. Conjure up the feelings that may surface if you were actually running in that moment. "You want to see this experience in high-definition, with a quiet body and mind, to be as present as possible throughout the process," he says.

Contrary to what you may have heard, it shouldn't all go perfectly in your head: "Spend approximately 85 percent of the time visualizing success-with a great stride, favorable conditions, confidence-and 15 percent imagining unpredictable and unfavorable conditions, like overwhelming anxiety at the start line, blisters, exhaustion," he says.

Try it: Make visualization part of your post-run routine. Stretch, foam roll, and sit quietly for six minutes imagining how you might navigate challenging moments amid an overall wonderful experience.

4. Master the art of self-talk.

"People believe that confidence comes from past success," says Gervais. "But that isn't true. Confidence comes from what you say to yourself day in and day out. And what you say to yourself is either building confidence or destroying it." Gervais advises becoming aware when you are engaging in negative self-talk, which only serves to leak energy and degrade your mood and confidence.

"Believing what is possible is the essence of self-talk," added Gervais. It might sound overly simple, but the idea is that, over time, the dialogue you have with yourself as a runner and as a person will shift from what you think you can't achieve to what you can. The fact of the matter is that positive self-talk statements are more productive and improve efficiency. Anxiety and negative-self talk erode efficiency, he says. (Here's more on how self-talk can build relentless confidence.)

Try it: Take note of whether your internal dialogue is negative or positive. When you notice your thoughts falling into the former bucket, actively reframe them in a positive way.

Try writing down some compelling self-talk statements as a backup when you're feeling, "meh." For instance, "I am going to actually enjoy my next event," or, "Running this race is a privilege and it's going to be a beautiful experience." After a great run or challenging workout, write down exactly how accomplished you feel, and turn back to those thoughts when you're feeling anxious or losing the joy in the activity itself.

5. Create rituals.

Artiga advocates creating rituals in the final days leading up to an event that focus on self-care and being ultra-prepared. (Here are a ton of self-care ideas to get you started.)

You can expect jitters to surface or intensify approximately five days before an event, says Artiga. It helps to have activities planned to manage them: Schedule a massage, indulge in a hot bath, go to the movies, enjoy special dinners, light candles at bedtime. In other words, slow down, reduce external stressors, and spoil yourself rotten. (Hey, you don't have to tell us twice!)

"All runners have trouble sleeping the night before an event," adds Artiga. That's why you should prioritize sleep approximately four nights before a race to achieve three nights of solid sleep before race day, he says. Create a cozy bedtime ritual with tea and a great book or magazine to beckon sleep, and store electronics in another room. Block off these nights on your calendar as a reminder. (Follow these other guidelines for getting the best sleep-and recovery-possible.)

Artiga also advises his runners to have their menus planned out five days before an event, based on tried-and-true meals, and to make sure fuel and hydration choices have been finalized and purchased. Pro tip: Don't try any new foods in the days before a race or on race day, if you can help it. Lay out all personal items and clothing a full day before the race to eliminate any sort of last-minute scramble. Being thoroughly prepared in the days leading up to a race puts you in a better place to harness anxiety vs. feeling out of control.

If you're traveling or taking a race-cation, this is all easier said than done. Do what you can to be super prepared: Pack extra gear so you're ready to race in any kind of weather. Research which restaurants offer a menu closest to what you might make at home and supplement with extra of your favorite snacks. Most importantly, remember that preparedness is not a guarantee that the unforeseen won't happen. That's where a blend of these five techniques comes into play. When more than one has been adopted into your routine, you'll be less susceptible to freaking out when the rug is pulled out.

Try it: Create a checklist of must-have items two days before your next race, including charging electronics, identifying throwaway clothing, and locating your favorite socks. Once the essentials have been set aside, take a bubble bath and get to sleep early.

Ultimately, the key to managing pre-race anxiety is 1) accepting that it's probably going to happen anyway and 2) coming to the sincere realization that cultivating mental strength and agility is a necessary complement to a physical training plan. Unlike a training plan, however, mental awareness isn't an exact science. For these five techniques to be effective, you need to get to know yourself better both as a runner and as a human being. Play around with the practices, and if you stick with what works, it's likely you will achieve greater calm before race day, as well as the next time life throws lemons your way.