Learning to manage the race day nerves

Even with years of running experience, pre-race butterflies are a common occurrence

I was recently reminded of race day nerves as I lined up with some runners who were taking on their first 5km. Although they had trained well and were certainly ready for the distance, doubt still prevailed. Anxious about the route, pace, fitness levels and the distance, they were a bundle of nerves.

While these concerns of a new runner may seem trivial to an experienced runner, they are very real to a beginner. There is always a fear of the unknown. Think back to your first 5km. You were most likely very anxious too. It’s only when we complete the distance once that we realise that most of what we worried about before the race never becomes a problem once we start moving. Nerves seem to disappear once the feet start moving and the focus moves from anticipation to action.

Yet, these pre-race nerves are not just reserved for newbies. Nor do they arrive just at the start line. Even with years of running experience, these butterflies in the stomach join many a runner on race morning right from the moment their alarm goes off. Even if the outcome of the event hardly appears life-changing to someone looking in from the outside, a race can be a big milestone for a recreational runner who has put time, effort and dedication into training.

Individual limitations

Every individual lining up has an expectation of what success in their event means to them. They are aware of their own individual limitations, the discomfort that success might require and any niggles that might impact their performance. Added to this list of worries is often their concern about how others may judge their performance and what position they will finish in relation to running buddies or clubmates.


All this is a lot of weight to put on the shoulders of someone who should ideally be relaxed, confident and comfortable to perform at their best. But the more we run, the more we can often raise the bar of success. That constant changing target keeps us on edge. But how much of an edge is enough and how much is too much. I believe that nerves are good, in moderation. It all depends really on what we are nervous about.

The next time you feel the pre-race nerves, make a mental note of what exactly you are anxious about. It might be a clear concern, it may be just a general lack of confidence or you might not even be able to pinpoint the source of the butterflies. Is there anything popping into your mind about your training that you are now questioning or regretting? What is your body wishing it had done differently in its preparation? That is probably what you should be working on for the next event.

You may not be able to articulate what you are worrying about at all on race morning. You may just be feeling a pain in the pit of your stomach or a queasy feeling for no clear reason. If you are aiming for a personal best, it might be just the anticipation of the discomfort ahead that is making you apprehensive or the pressure you put on yourself to always be better. Those type of morning nerves are pretty normal and I have yet to learn how to overcome them myself.

Personal best

When we have invested a lot in aiming for a personal best at a certain distance, or are taking on a new distance or the first time, even with all training going to plan, there is a risk on a race day that you might end up sick, have a family emergency or indeed have a race cancelled due to bad weather. I always suggest to any runner who is putting a lot of pressure on one day to have a back-up race of the same distance a few weeks later so that all eggs are not in one basket. Should anything not work out for the first event, there is always another in reserve. This can help lift some of the pressure.

If you are apprehensive because your training has not gone to plan and you won’t preform as well as you would have liked, that’s a lesson in that to be learnt for the future. If your concern is a niggle or an injury, decide what you can do before the next event to make that less of an issue. If you are worrying about beating another runner, remember you can only control your own training and performance, not theirs.

There is often a lot of waiting at a start line and this time can be spent focusing on the possible negative outcomes the day may bring or choosing to list everything that you have done well to get in a position to run a good race. There will always be elements outside of our control, but if we do the best we can for the day that we are in, we surely should be happy with that.

The one thing I know for sure is that at the end line, no matter how you perform nerves are replaced by another form of emotion. It will be elation or disappointment and the fear of the latter is what holds many of us back. But we may never get the elation if we are not willing to put ourselves on the line for a little disappointment too. A few healthy nerves will keep us on the straight and narrow and will certainly help wake us up and feel alive on a race morning.

Mary Jennings is founder and running coach with ForgetTheGym.ie. Mary's new book Get Running, published by Gill Books, is out now.

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