Pre-race nerves and how to manage them
This post is from the archives of my previous racing blog. On the eve of the first Australian XCO National Series Race in Orange, NSW I am revisiting it for myself. While the race described here was a local race, all the same things apply regardless if you're at a newbie XC race or World Championships. I hope that others can gain some useful skills from it too!
The first round of our local race series, the 2016 Wild West Series (pew pew!), was hosted at Adare on Sunday. While I don’t really want to go and write a race report about it, it was the first race of the year and as such I woke up that morning and immediately felt nervous. How was my form? How was everyone elses form? Can I keep it upright? Such pressing questions were in the forefront of my mind.
It was a club race; what was I worried about? I have lined up at cross-country races more times than I dare to count; local, state, national and even a couple of international events, but this fact didn’t diminish that little knot of unease in my guts.
Well, there are only a certain amount of races every year and hence if I turn up to race I need to make it count! Plus, it’s ‘only’ the Wild West Series, however it’s as big in numbers as our state-level racing and all the fast riders make the effort to go. We even had two (gravity) world champions racing; madness!
So with all this in mind, I have written up a few quick tips for the pre-race nerves. It worked for me: after a long trip to the race, by the time I was on the start line I was cool as a cucumber (in 35-degree heat…) and had gotten my heart rate down from about 140 due to anxiety and nerves to under a 100 and ready to race!
There are two types of anxiety typically experienced in pre-race nerves: Somatic and cognitive. Somatic anxiety refers to the physical manifestations of anxiety (heart racing, clammy palms, those butterflies or knots in the stomach…) while cognitive anxiety refers to the thought processes that can occur (negativity, self doubt, low self esteem).
So here’s a few techniques that can be used to quell pre-race nerves.
Change your goals: rather than focussing on a finishing in a certain position, make some process goals that could lead to good performances but don’t focus on a number. For example, instead of having a goal of winning or being on the podium (which could be very difficult to achieve if there are five other riders in top form in your class, you can’t control their performances after all!), you could have a goal to clear the technical section every lap, ride within a certain heart rate parameter, or give it all on a certain climb every lap. This takes the goal back into your hands and regains your control of your riding.
Visualisation: Use of visualisation, either as a distraction (ie: thinking of a calm and tranquil place) or of your own performance (ie: riding fast smooth, powerful and in control) can also help to settle pre-race anxiety.
Warm up and pre-ride the course: Get your body ready, while taking a lap of the course if you can. This allows for familiarisation of the course and planning of nutrition/drinking as well as places to attack and recover. Riding the course prior to the race also allows for targeted visualisation of the course.
Mantras: Sometimes race time anxiety can become overwhelming, perhaps your legs are screaming and you still have two laps to go, and maybe someone in a skid-lid and work boots has whizzed past you like you were standing skill. A mantra can assist some people; if the cognitive ‘anxious thoughts’ creep in you can take it back to basics. Some popular mantras I have used include “just keep pedalling, just keep pedalling” (a la Dory in Finding Nemo), “I love it, love it, love it” (pretend you love how bad you love the hurt while trying to keep that gel in your stomach; or simple word cues to keep you focussed “smooth” or “focus” or ‘breathe”.
Work on the confidence: It can be hard with many unknowns coming into a race season, but if you have done the work you can be confident in lining up and being ‘enough’. If your training has been adequate, keep a training diary (or trawl through Strava!) to reassure yourself of the excellent rides you have done to get the fitness on track.
For my race? It was hard, as racing should be. On the way out I did some deep breathing (it’s important here that one doesn’t lapse into hyperventilation!) and thought of myself riding smooth and powerfully. I set a goal to clear the tough climb/descent each lap, which I did 4 out of 5 laps as unfortunately I hit my pedal on a rock one lap and had a dab. By focussing on the process (managing unpleasant vomit-y stomach and ragged race breathing, keeping focussed and having a process goal) I ended up having a great race: what was I even nervous about?