6 Steps For Keeping Your Cool at Your Big-City Race

You’ve spent your training runs loping along tree-lined trails or quiet back roads with your herd. But one day, you find yourself on a city street inside an immense crowd of unfamiliar beasts. Music blares, crowds roar, and you have to fight your way through a veritable obstacle course to reach your destination.

Add the pressure to perform and months (if not years) of preparation and expectation, and you have the perfect description of a big-city race – and a potential recipe for a major mental meltdown. The unfamiliar sights, sounds, and emotions can trigger your body’s fight-or-flight stress response, says mental skills coach Carrie Cheadle, M.A., author of On Top of Your Game. Your heart races, your breath quickens, and your muscles tense, all of which perks you up in the moment but wears you down as time passes. “There’s a real physiological impact to getting stressed out, and you don’t want to burn your matches on that,” she says. “You want that energy to go toward your race.”

You can’t quiet the crowds. Nor would you want to – after all, you’ve been anticipating this since long before you clicked “submit” on your registration form. Fortunately, Cheadle says, you can change the way your mind and body react. Whether the gun goes off in months or minutes, we have the mental tools you need to have the best possible race experience. (Pay extra attention if you noticed your palms sweating and your heart thumping just reading about race day – you may have extra sensitivity to its stress-inducing effects, Cheadle notes.)

During training: Make it old hat.

Race jitters may not set in until closer to the event, but you can start preventing them weeks or even months ahead of time by logging some miles in situations that simulate what you’ll experience during the event. “Mimic any of the conditions you can – the idea is to minimise the novelty on race day,” says psychologist Sian Beilock, Ph.D., author of Choke and How the Body Knows Its Mind. When the same scenario pops up on race day, your brain files it under “been there, done that,” instead of “time to freak out.”

Live in a rural area? Head to a city for a couple of long runs. Dead silence on your regular route? Make a booming playlist for your workouts (just make sure you don’t tune out traffic around you), says Jeff Brown, Psy.D., a psychiatry professor and author of The Winner’s Brain. Run a shorter tune-up race or two if possible, and ask your cheering squad to show up on the sidelines. “It’s great to succeed in front of your family and friends; it’s horrible to have a suboptimal performance,” Beilock says. “You want to be sure you’re used to the effects of having them there watching.”

Days and weeks beforehand: Plan every detail.

“When we don’t know what’s going to happen, that’s when we get nervous,” says Jeff Gaudette, head coach at RunnersConnect. A race strategy – complete with details like clothing, pacing, and fueling – alleviates anxiety, but don’t stop there. Whether you have two weeks left or just a few days, creating a detailed agenda fosters feelings of confidence. Nail down details like how you’ll get to and from the airport and the race, where you’ll eat, and what time you’ll wake up. If anxiety arises as the date nears, simply refer back to the plan and remember you’ve thought it all through.

Take it a step further by creating a pre-performance plan for your mental state, Cheadle says. Envision how you want to feel before and during the race (calm? prepared? energized?) and identify the strategies that can help you achieve that goal, such as listening to calm music or having a pep talk with your running partners. Use imagery to picture the race going well but also to visualise encountering obstacles – say, a loose shoelace or an unplanned potty break, Gaudette says. Imagining yourself reacting calmly in a crisis lays the neural groundwork for adapting to whatever comes up in real life.

Race morning: Fill your time wisely.

The complex logistics of big-city events can mean runners must rise early to board a bus, train, or ferry, then sit or stand around for hours waiting for the race to begin. As you create your pre-performance plan, make sure you consider that period. “This is really a tempting time to start worrying about the race and dissecting your performance before it happens,” Beilock says.

Decide ahead of time on a strategy to either distract you or create positive, performance-enhancing feelings, Gaudette says. Divert your attention by reading a book, playing games on your phone, or creating a mood-boosting playlist and listening to it on repeat. Cheadle recalls one athlete she met who wiled away the hours making up sweet, funny stories about the other runners around him. Build confidence by reflecting on your training and your previous achievements, scheduling a call with a supportive friend, or writing down and reading over a list of affirmations that make you feel strong and powerful (for instance, “This is my race,” or “I trust my training”).

Race start: Tune out.

Most runners have heard going out too fast increases the risk of burning out later. Verbal encouragement from spectators and competition from the field both lower your rate of perceived exertion, or how hard you must work to run a given pace, according to a new review article published in the journal Sports Medicine. “You believe you’re more capable than you really are, you feel less effort, and you go too fast,” says study author Samuele Marcora, Ph.D., of the University of Kent. However, your muscles don’t get this memo and fatigue more quickly than if you begin at an appropriate pace, Marcora’s research shows. That fatigue causes many runners to “hit the wall” and slow down later in the race.

You can’t truly ignore the atmosphere – even if you put in earplugs, your brain would still process the signals subliminally, Marcora says. But understand that it occurs and pay extra attention to other cues like your breathing, your heart rate, and the time on the clock in the early Ks to make sure you don’t run faster than you’d planned. And consider running with or near a pace group, if your race offers them. Just check in with the pacer first to make sure he or she has solid pacing experience and plans to run the first few Ks conservatively, so you don’t blindly follow another runner into an overly ambitious start, Gaudette says.

Mid- to late-race: Use the crowd.

After a difficult stretch, taking a moment to appreciate spectators’ cheers can give you a mental break from the extended focus of a marathon and put a spring back in your step, Gaudette says. Inside your head, brand the roars as “foot fuel,” and envision them powering you to the next kilometre, Brown recommends. If you find yourself struggling in a quiet section, self-talk – repeating positive affirmations you’ve practiced beforehand – can give you an equivalent boost, Marcora says.

Since the earliest days of sports psychology, scientists have known that going head-to-head serves as a powerful motivator. As you near the finish line, employ the power of competition to push you to your strongest finish. Focus on runners you think you can reach or beat, then aim to pick them off one at a time. “Using these types of psychological techniques, you can get effects on your performance that are similar to the effects of stimulants,” Marcora says – in a totally legal and ethical way.

Throughout: Embrace the moment.

Race day may bring unanticipated challenges as well as unexpected joys. To have a truly positive experience no matter what, arrive knowing that and ready to roll with it. “You don’t need optimal conditions in order to perform to your potential and have your best race,” Cheadle says. “Trust that whatever happens that day, that’s what your race was meant to be and that you can handle it.”

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