Races are exciting. They’re the perfect platform to test our limits, face our competitors and celebrate what our bodies can do. But races don’t always go as planned. The pressure to perform can help or hinder performance, depending on how you handle it.
Creating a personal race day routine is an excellent way to manage race day jitters and compete at your best. Intentional, repeated practice and behaviors leading up to the big day can be immensely helpful for newbies and professional athletes alike. These behaviors can include everything from what you eat to how long you warm up, cultivating non-attachment to your goals and positive self-talk.
Why do we need routines? Because when it comes to race day stress, it’s easy for bad habits to take over. Perhaps nervous pre-race energy causes you to eat too little or too much, lose rest or ignore the need to plan out logistics. Some of us get snappy with loved ones or go down a path of negative self-talk. Your routine can be a personal security blanket in a time of stress by redirecting uncertainty into a place of healthy habit and routine.
Develop and Fine-Tune Good Habits While Training
Let’s say you are training for a competitive summer 5K race that begins in the evening. You need to develop a routine to prepare physically and mentally. Your routine also needs to give you confidence in your choices for fuel, gear and race-day logistics.
- Choose a training plan specific to the race distance and conditions. Since your race will happen in the evening heat, get yourself accustomed to running in that temperature and time of day. The more you prepare for your race conditions, the more confident you can be during your race.
- Practice how you will hydrate and fuel your body throughout the day, paying attention to what—and when—you eat. Experiment with different meals, gels, hydration tabs and snacks to see how your stomach reacts and how much time you need to digest. Focus on macronutrients rather than just calories. Find your magic formula, practice it and stick to it so you don’t have to guess when race day arrives.
- Find your ideal race shoes, clothes and gear. This will take time, trial and error. Once you’ve found your kit, wear it for your toughest workouts. If you want to carry water in the race, find your hydration system and practice running with it.
- Figure out race day logistics in advance. This will vary widely from race to race, but always plan ahead and give yourself plenty of time to get ready no matter the distance or location of the race. Some races will take less preparation, but you better do some research and preparation to reserve flights, hotels, and race day transportation if you are traveling to a huge event for a big city. Don’t sabotage your race by creating unneeded stress from lack of planning. Give yourself a set amount of time to arrive at the course properly rested, fueled, warmed up and mentally prepared for action. Then work backward to plan your schedule. Know your own needs, and make this easy on yourself. Maybe that means asking a friend to drop you off at the course, or hang around at the starting line with a water bottle and your favorite gel.
- Practice a positive mindset throughout your training. Your perspective on training is something you can practice and refine over the long haul. The more you hit your target workouts, the more your confidence will increase. But you won’t always hit your paces, and the way you handle those setbacks is crucial. Be mindful of how you respond when a workout is difficult. Practice persevering through difficult runs without giving up, even if you aren’t running as fast as you’d like. Be willing to adjust your goals on the fly when needed. This will help you de-stress your training and develop mental toughness for competitions.
Create a specific plan for yourself before the race. Each person’s plan will be different, but here are some general things to think about:
- Travel logistics
- Training plans leading up to race day
- How much rest to get before the race
- What to eat and drink in the week leading up to the race
- What to eat and drink on the day of the race
- What to wear for the race
- When to warm up and for how long
- How to prepare your mental state for racing
- A, B, C race goals.
- A post-race celebration
Put Good Habits into Practice on Race Day
All the planning in the world won't help if you don't trust the process come race day. So make sure you stick to your plan when the big day arrives.
- Work on managing your nervous energy. This takes practice and isn’t easy. If you are tapering for an event, it becomes more difficult to manage nerves because you will run less and have more opportunity for nervous energy. There are many different philosophies on tapering, but if you find that you have too much nervousness, consider running a little bit more to keep this under control. Experiment with different strategies to see what you like best.
- Journal about your goals and intentions. Some runners like to write these on the back of their bibs on the night before a race. They can also turn your bib into a more meaningful race memento afterward. Think of all the training you have completed and what you have done to prepare yourself for this moment.
- Let your running goals be flexible. Have an “A” goal for your ideal race, and “B” and “C” goals to focus on if it isn’t your best day. Deaflympian Ryan Guldan uses this philosophy. “A” goals are often focused on time or place, while “B” goals can be a slightly lower standard or targeted toward just finishing and enjoying the race.
- Focus on positivity. If you get racing anxiety, try to shift the way you see the race. You will have a much better day if you can approach the race with joy and determination rather than fear. The race is a celebration and the culmination of your training. You have prepared for this, and you’re ready.
- Relax. No matter your religion or life philosophy, many people find it calming to breathe deeply, clear their minds, pray, focus on gratitude or visualize themselves having their best race ever. Professional runner Gabby Thomas says she keeps a calm pre-race mental state by treating the day like any other. For her, that means relaxing with Netflix followed by a pre-race meditation.
- Do something that makes you smile before the race. This might mean listening to upbeat or calming music. Do a warm-up dance. Hug a friend or loved one.
- Stick to the plan you created. You’ve practiced this. Go into autopilot. You and your body know what to do. Feeling uncertain about your plan? No worries. Each race is practice for the next. Pay attention to how things go and use it to improve the plan for next time.
By Kate Schwartz. Schwartz has been running competitively for 20 years, and she currently runs with the Asheville Running Collective. She lives in Asheville, NC, with her husband, Alex, and their cat, Clementine.