Bring It On: Taming Your Race Day Jitters

The start of a race can be nerve wracking for even experienced runners, what with thousands of people packed into the corral waiting for the horn to sound – positive anticipation mingling with familiar worries and doubts: Will I be able to execute under pressure? Did I train hard enough? What the heck am I doing here with all of these other runners who look so much faster and more hardcore than me?!

It’s normal to feel some anxiety in this situation. In fact, research shows that mild anxiety can help you excel at high-performance activities (such as distance running) by bolstering your energy and sharpening your focus. The trick is keeping anxiety on a tight leash so that it facilitates rather than impedes your performance. In short, some nervous energy can be a good thing, extreme anxiety or panic not so much.

So what can you do to stay grounded, enjoy the moment, and prepare for a great run? In this article we outline three simple techniques to stay limber and focused on race day: positive self-talk, controlled breathing and visualization.

Positive Self-Talk

As we mentioned last month, positive self-talk can give you the mental momentum you need to succeed on race day. But it works best if you practice ahead of time, building up your psychological capacity at the same time as you build up your physical fitness. As Dave Harding, coach of the marathon group at the Ottawa Running Club, points out, “the mental attitude you cultivate during training will become the attitude you drift toward on race day.” Which means when you’re in the corral, you’ll be able to draw on familiar strength-based statements to settle your nerves (e.g., I’m strong, I’m prepared, I can do this).


When the jitters strike, there’s no tool more powerful than controlled breathing. Why? Because it calms down the sympathetic nervous system, bringing your body back to baseline and deescalating common symptoms of anxiety (rapid heartbeat, butterflies, restlessness, etc.). Try inhaling through your nose for a count of four and exhaling slowly through your mouth for a count of six (or whatever feels right for you). After a few minutes of this type of breathing, you’ll feel more grounded in the moment and ready to run at your intended pace.


Finally, while you’re waiting in the corral, visualization is a terrific way to relax and cue up a winning performance. Amazingly, just picturing yourself doing something relaxing (e.g., hanging out on a beach) can bring you relaxation. Similarly, picturing yourself performing an activity the way you want (e.g., running well) readies your mind and body for a successful performance. Coach Dave suggests the following pre-race routine: “Take a moment to visualize a training run or a recent race that went well and picture yourself running smoothly and effortlessly. Take a deep breath and exhale completely, relaxing your neck, shoulders and arms. Then look up at the start banner and say to yourself, ‘Bring it on!’”

Yup. We’re almost there. The Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend. And with positive self-talk, breathing and visualization you’ve got some great ways to calm the nerves and prepare the mind in the days and minutes before the race. All that’s left to do is get out there on race day and enjoy the experience. As Coach Dave says, “Your training has brought you to the start line fit and healthy. Now it’s time to celebrate your fitness by running your race!”