By Jim Rutberg, co-author “Training Essentials for Ultrarunning”
Race-day anxiety is normal and both novice and experienced athletes are likely to experience it before and during a challenging 50-kilometer, 50-mile, or 100-mile ultramarathon. Learning to manage it is essential to having a successful and positive experience at your next big event.
Step 1: Get Organized
Uncertainty is one of the primary causes of anxiety before or during an event, and being disorganized increases your stress level. You can’t control every aspect of your performance (sports would be pretty boring if you could, right?), but you can control your level of preparation. Make sure you have all the gear you’re going to need – and, if possible, spares of the most important items – and make sure you have all your race-day foods and drinks purchased and packed. A written checklist is a good way to make sure you don’t forget anything. Gather as much information as possible about where you need to be and when, the terrain and technical features of the course, and anything your crew needs to know. As you pack for the race, step back and look at your gear, food, and race information all in one place; it can take a tremendous load off your shoulders. Once you know you’ve handled everything you can control, all that’s left is to relax and focus on your performance.
Step 2: Accept the situation as it is
Sometimes things just don’t go your way. Whether you couldn’t find the right oatmeal for your pre-race breakfast or your luggage never made it to baggage claim and you’re scrounging for borrowed gear, there comes a time when what you have is what you’re going to get. If you’re frustrated about racing on French toast instead of oatmeal, drop it, get over it, move on. When you can’t do anything about it, continuing to be stressed about a situation that’s less-than-perfect isn’t going to help. The faster you’re willing and able to adapt to the new circumstances, the less stress you’ll feel and the better you’ll be able to perform. Many a race has been won in borrowed shoes.
The same goes for worrying about your fitness. Once you’re within about a week of your big event, there’s little to nothing you can do to improve your fitness. All you can do is impact how rested, fueled, and hydrated you’re going to be on the start line. Some athletes sit up nights thinking about all the things they could have done differently in training, and before an event that’s a complete waste of time. A week before your event, you’re as fit as you’re going to be. Think about how you’re going to use that fitness, not about what you could have done two months ago.
Step 3: Break it down
Getting off the start line is often the most stressful part of a race, and a lot of athletes feel a tremendous sense of relief once the event actually starts. But anxiety often builds again partway through it. As the excitement of the start wears off, the magnitude of the task ahead can become overwhelming. “I’ve been out here for 4 hours and I have 20 more to go?!” Breaking the remaining distance into more manageable chunks is essential. It’s much less intimidating to focus on getting from here to the next aid station or to the turn-around point, instead of thinking about the fact that the finish line is 80 miles and many hours away.
Step 4: Expect a bad patch, and work through it
As an endurance athlete, you’re out in the elements so long you’re bound to go through a phase where you feel like crud. But the cool part of being an endurance athlete is you’re also out there so long you can rebound for a great performance. The two keys for making it through the bad times are taking care of yourself and continuing to move forward. Try to assess what you need (more food, water, electrolytes, a slower pace), and be proactive about getting it. Coach Jason Koop has a great system, called ADAPT, for race-day problem solving, and Coach Andy Jones-Wilkins uses these 3 tips to beat the urge to quit. If it’s nutrition-related, slow down and cool down to let food, water, and electrolytes get into your system. Most important, recognize that feeling bad halfway through your event doesn’t mean you’re done for the day; if you keep a level head and make good decisions, you can run yourself out of a bad patch and still have a great race.