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Your first race, a new distance or a concerted PR attempt can lead to self-doubt, stress and other counterproductive emotions. But there are ways to combat those feelings and make racing a more positive and rewarding experience.
Nobody is better at managing pre-race nerves and using that extra energy than the pros, so we asked some of the best trail runners around for tips on staying calm and being totally ready when it’s time to toe the line.
(Anxieties, of course, are very individual, and not all of these methods will work for every runner. Got another suggestion that you don’t see here? Let us know in the comments!)
1. Be social …
If you’ve got an outgoing personality, indulge it. Being with friends and family can be a great way to keep from dwelling on negative thoughts too much. When you surround yourself with people who have confidence in you, you’ll feel more confident in yourself, be distracted from your nerves and be reminded that regardless of race outcome, you’ve got support.
“Spending time with my family is my favorite thing to do,” says Magdalena Lewy-Boulet, an Olympic marathoner and the 2015 Western States 100 champion. “I know my family loves me no matter how well I run on a particular day.”
2. … unless you feel more relaxed doing something else
Maybe you don’t like to be around others when you’re nervous, and you’d rather get out and walk your dog, meditate, read or listen to music. Whatever your favorite relaxing activity is, do it.
Mike Foote, winner of the 2013 Moab Trail Marathon and runner-up at the 2015 Hardrock 100, jumps from activity to activity: watching movies, doing pushups, reading books, even letting friends paint his toenails.
“I remember that I have done my best when I didn’t take myself too seriously,” Foote says. “I get out of my own head.”
Just remember to be smart and conserve energy. If a pre-race 10-miler sounds like the best way to calm down, find another method of de-stressing.
The dreaded sleeplessness the night before a race can add to nerves, but the days and weeks leading up to that point matter even more. Go to bed early and get as much rest as your body feels it needs. Come race day, you’ll be rested and ready regardless of the previous night’s sleep and the starting-line adrenaline will take over where that leaves off.
Lewy-Boulet uses one of her best friends as a “nap coach” to remind her of the importance of getting lots of sleep. Dakota Jones, who won the Broken Arrow Skyrace 52K earlier this year, vouches for snoozing, too.
“It’s hard to relax when you have more energy than usual and you know you’re supposed to apply it to something important,” he says. “But I try to take naps.”
4. Know your race-day plan
Lay out everything you’ll need for race day near your bed or somewhere you can easily find it the day of. If you’re traveling to a destination race, pack options ahead of time and have all your gear—shoes, socks, gels, water—in one easily accessible place.
Then, study the course map and race-day schedule so there won’t be any surprises. Two-time World 100K champion Ellie Greenwood says that’s also a good way to pass time and keep busy, thus dispelling negative thoughts and nerves. You’ll feel more at ease knowing you’re prepared.
Knowing what the course terrain will look like and simulating that in training, says veteran North Face athlete Diane Van Deren, is another way to make sure you’re completely prepared, and a little less nervous as a result. She credits that prep as a major part of her success in becoming the first woman to complete the 430-mile Yukon Arctic Ultra 300, in 2009.
5. Look back at your prep
The pressure of a race and the excess energy that comes with tapering can cause you to doubt your level of readiness. Dylan Bowman, a two-time Leadville podium finisher and three-time Western States top-10 finisher, finds this to be the hardest thing to overcome when competing.
“I often get insecure with my preparation,” Bowman says. “Looking back on my training helps to give me confidence when I stand on the start line. More often than not, I’m fit and primed for a good performance.”
If you keep a training log, pull it out and look back at all the time and effort you’ve put into preparing for this race. You’ll feel more confident and ready knowing you’ve done everything you can. And if the race doesn’t go the way you plan, you can look back and tweak your future training accordingly.
6. Keep things in perspective
Face your nervousness head-on, says Foote. He finds it helpful to “identify and deconstruct what’s causing anxiety.” Does your stress have to do with something you can control, like gear, nutrition or strategy? If so, work to address that issue. If not, try to let it go. And when it comes down to it, remember why you run. Make a list of your reasons for doing it or write down why you find it gratifying.
And don’t forget that nervous energy is energy too, and you can use it.
“I think nerves are important because that’s telling you you’re not overconfident,” says Van Deren. “We all have ups, we all have downs, but it’s how you face those challenges. When you’re in the midst of the downs, that’s what makes you stronger. And when you’re on the ups, that’s what makes you vibrant.”