Racing is an incredible opportunity to showcase the impact of your training. You’ve put in all the hard work to prepare for the event. Now put the final touches on your preparation to ensure you arrive at the starting line ready to execute your performance standards and go after that outcome goal.
Optimizing Your Arousal Level
When it comes to race day readiness, it’s helpful to understand your optimal level of arousal as you arrive at the race, warm up, and line up at the start. Although arousal levels vary by sport, they are also very personal to each athlete within a sport. It may also differ for you based on event type and distance. For example, you might need a lower level of arousal before the start of a marathon than you do before the start of a 5K.
The optimal level of arousal for performance is based on the Yerkes–Dodson law, originally developed in 1908 by psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson. This law states that performance increases as physiological and psychological arousal increases — but only up to a point, because too much arousal diminishes performance. The relationship between arousal and performance therefore looks like a bell curve with optimal arousal somewhere in the middle of the two extremes. For example, on a scale from 1 (no arousal) to 10 (maximum arousal), optimal arousal will be somewhere between 4 and 6.
As a high school cross country runner, I remember driving to some of our meets with friends who blasted music in the car that got all of us pumped up as we moved to the upbeat tunes. I would often arrive at the starting line of those races feeling drained compared to when I drove myself. I eventually recognized that I needed a calmer pre-race routine to arrive at the starting line in my optimal state.
To determine your optimal arousal state, think about your prior race experiences and the level of arousal going into those races that worked best for you. Rate that on an arousal scale from 1 to 10. Then develop a pre-race routine that positions you in your optimal arousal state.
Dealing with Pre-Race Jitters
It’s common for athletes to experience anxiety before a race or key training session — “pre-race jitters.” Dealing with the jitters starts by recognizing anxiety as a sign that you care about your performance and understanding how anxiety develops in the mind.
Anxiety is related to fear, but differs in key ways. Fear occurs when we experience a real-life threat to our well-being or existence. For example, you’re running down the trail and find yourself face-to-face with a bear. That’s a very real threat. Anxiety, on the other hand, occurs when we develop a mental image of something that may go wrong — the anticipation of a future threat. For example, you’re getting ready for a trail run and start to think, “What if I encounter a bear? I know bears are active where I’ll be running.” The anticipation of a future threat stimulates the same “fight-flight-or-freeze” nervous system response as an actual threat, causing the pre-race jitters.
Anxiety — whether in sport or life — develops in situations that involve unpredictability, where we lack control, or when something we care about feels threatened. We can’t predict how the race will unfold or what other competitors will do, and this may be a source of anxiety. We have no control over the weather and a forecast of rain, which may be a source of anxiety if we don’t like competing in the rain. We may feel anxious about anticipated pain or discomfort associated with the race. We may feel like we don’t have the necessary skills to match the activity. We may feel like our identity is on the line and threatened. The deeper the threat to our identity, the greater the anxiety. This is why jitters often arise before those big events we’ve been training for all year. We might perceive the inability to perform up to our expectations as a threat to our identity as an athlete or as a person.
Simply ignoring anxiety or trying to push it away doesn’t work. Since we can’t change what we’re not fully aware of, dealing with anxiety requires applying that foundational mental skill of mindfulness to recognize what is triggering it. We can then tame it by understanding its sources, reframing the perceived threats as challenges, and countering the anxiety triggers with trust. Anxiety, in many ways, revolves around a temporary lack of trust we have in our abilities to perform. The practical application that follows this lesson walks you through each of these steps to help you prepare for an upcoming race.
Emotional regulation is another vital mental skill for athletes to have in their repertoire on race day to deal with the jitters, but it can also be put to use on training days and in everyday life.
Emotional regulation refers to the ability to regulate your mind, body, and spirit given the demands of the situation. There’s no single method for emotional regulation and how you go about it depends on what works best for you. But, as with all advanced mental skills, emotional regulation builds on the foundational skill of awareness. We must first recognize what’s happening with our emotions before we can regulate them.
We also need to understand the levers we have for regulating emotions. There are three key aspects of our lived experiences: (1) actions/behaviors, (2) thoughts/thinking, and (3) emotions/moods. Only the first two are directly modifiable in any given moment. We can change what we’re doing and we can change what we’re thinking. Emotions/moods are trickier to control. Since we don’t have a direct lever to shift emotions, we need to use the levers for actions and thoughts to indirectly regulate emotions.
Regulating our physical experiences can modify our psychological states. Let’s say you leave a chaotic work meeting that leaves you feeling frustrated and angry. From your mindfulness training, you recognize the emotions you’re feeling and want to modify them before you take an important call with a client. So you focus on shifting your physical state by sitting quietly for a minute to bring your breathing and heart rate down to a resting state. By the end of that minute, your physical state has shifted with the nervous system moving from a “flight or flight” state to a relaxed state. You complement this by redirecting your thoughts, perhaps reframing your frustration and anger as signs of involvement and opportunities to pursue. This paves the way for your emotions to follow.
The same process works in athletic situations where you need to maintain composure and control over your emotions, whether you’re experiencing anxiety at the start of a race or anger at a competitor who cut you off at a turn. What you can control are your actions, such as taking some deep breaths to slow your breathing rate, and your thoughts about the situation, allowing your emotions to shift accordingly.
Responding to the Unexpected
Races — and life — never unfold perfectly. Even the best laid plans are subject to disruption as unexpected situations inevitably arise.
I like to think of racing as something done from within the eye of a hurricane. Within the eye, everything is calm and still, even as the chaos of the hurricane swirls around it. This metaphor underscores how a calm mind can be the driving center of intense physical performance surrounded by unexpected variables out of your control. Residing within the hurricane’s eye allows you to maintain composure as you direct all of your resources to perform at your best.
When dealing with unplanned or unexpected situations, strive to respond rather than simply react. Responding entails starting from a place of awareness and presence. You take in the situation and recognize what’s happening without judgment, purposefully attending to the relevant details so you can respond effectively. Reacting, on the other hand, carries the connotation of being driven by a stimulus without necessarily acting from a place of awareness and presence.
Responding is clearly a better strategy to dealing with any crisis situation because it leaves you in charge, not the stimulus. Responding can be done quickly, but must always be done with awareness and presence. Draw from your foundational mindfulness practice as you work to bring this type of awareness and presence into your training and racing — and life.