6 pre-race anxiety remedies

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Feeling anxious about your race tomorrow, this weekend or weeks before? Do you feel like you can’t cope with the situation, that you can’t influence your feelings and thoughts, and/or that you have negative expectations regarding achieving your goal?

When you feel anxious and nervous, as I’m sure you know, this can lead to a negative and debilitative impact on your performance. However, the good news is that you can change this!

If you would like to feel that you’re going to perform at your best, you can influence your thoughts and feelings irrespective of the situation and environment, have the competitive edge, high levels of self-confidence, more hardy and resilient, incredible levels of concentration and focus and positive mindset at and around your competition or race, then read on.

Only you have influence over your thoughts, feelings, beliefs, actions and you guessed it, your performance. You have the resources you require to meet the demands of the situation and with the 6 tools and tactics I share with you today, you’re going to unlock them.

Depending where you are in the lead up to your race, how you’re feeling and your personality, will depend on which tools and tactics - or which combination, will work best for you. Have fun and experiment, and let me know how you get on!

Here are 6 pre-anxiety race remedies to help you race at your best…

1. Powerful, positive, productive language

Sports psychology literature shows that powerful, positive and productive self-talk enhances athletes’ performance. I know from my own journey - and my client’s, that changing the way you talk to yourself in a useful and healthy way, will enhance your performance.

I feel like Adelaide helped me tremendously. She taught me that if you ever don’t think you can do something, don’t listen to that voice. There’s always a way to do what you want, do what you love, and do what you’re passionate about.
— Brittany Davis, member of the USA Paraclimbing Team
Photo credit: Brittany Davis

Photo credit: Brittany Davis

By being able to influence your thoughts, feelings and emotions in a powerful, productive and positive way in any given situation, will lead you to shaving time off your race, knocking out a PB, having a more enjoyable time and racing at your best.

Your proficiency in recognising when you’re feeling anxious and positively changing your thoughts, feelings and emotions to shift state, will determine your ability to feel confident about your race, increase your performance and therefore your chances of success.

The words triathletes say and use are the structure and architecture of their thoughts, feelings and experiences. They can make the difference between world-class and sub-par performance, between breaking records and being just shy of the time, podium finishes and watching from the sidelines, PB’s and being short yet again, having fun and feeling miserable.

Triathletes often feel anxious and nervous about a race because of what they’re saying to themselves. They often don’t realise that what they’re saying is exactly what they don’t want. For example, they may say ‘I don't want to be distracted’ or ‘No, no, please no, don’t cramp up now!’ or ‘I don’t want to lose to my competitors’, and the problem is that the brain cannot directly process negative words or phrases, without first getting in touch with those feelings/thoughts, so it understands the instruction of what not to think or feel about.

For example, for the next 2 seconds I do NOT want you to think about Einstein wearing a sombrero and riding a giant pink dog. Did you notice what happened? You immediately thought about it, because your brain is creating that image in your mind, as it prepares not to think about it!

This is what happens with triathletes’ feelings and thoughts when they say 'I don't want to feel anxious’, their brain triggers the pathway for anxiety. Triathletes therefore want to point their brain in the direction they want to go in, using positive, powerful and productive language. For example, they may say instead ‘I know I can race my best’.

2. Stopping unhelpful thoughts in their tracks

The thought-stopping technique is one of the most powerful methods I know to break unhelpful thought patterns and install new, productive thoughts instead! I teach it to all of my athletes as it’s very effective in the lead up to a race, as well as during the competition too.

This is one of pro Norwegian triathlete Allan Hovda’s (@allanhov) go to techniques during a race when he is having any unhelpful thoughts, whether he’s beating himself up or focusing on the negative and/or unhelpful things.

Photo credit: Allan Hovda running in first place at Norseman 2018 by Agurtxane Concellon

Photo credit: Allan Hovda running in first place at Norseman 2018 by Agurtxane Concellon

Step 1: If you're feeling or thinking something that you’re not sure is helping your performance, ask yourself: Is this helping my performance? If the answer is no, go to step 2, if it is enhancing your performance then great!

Step 2: say ‘stop’. You want this stop to be congruent with how you want to feel and think. For example, if you want to feel calm, then say ‘stop’ in a slow relaxed voice. If you want to feel confident, then say ‘stop’ in a firm confident voice.

Some psychologist also advocate imagining a large red stop sign in your mind too.

Step 3: Using your supportive voice, ask yourself 'What feeling or thought would enhance my performance?'

Step 4: Using only positive words (e.g. calm, confident, energised, excited, relaxed, serene - I do not want you saying ‘not anxious’ or ‘not nervous’ as you’ll trigger the neuro-pathways associated with these things). 

Answer with a firm and positive voice, such as 'I want to feel a million dollars’ or ‘I’ve got this’, and feel this feeling fill every fibre and cell of your body up - if you’re having trouble with feeling positive powerful feelings, take yourself back to a time when you felt them. For example, if you want to feel calm, take yourself to a time when you were at a spa or on a really relaxing holiday.

Here’s Hovda’s experience of combining positive self talk with this technique:

We changed the negative judgmental self-talk with positive affirmations and self-love. It may come across a bit of new age hippy talk, but from my experience, it truly works. And even better, it works fast.

After our first session addressing this issue, I changed the way I looked and talked to myself. It did not make Ironman Barcelona easy, that is hardly possible and not the goal of the mindset coaching. It did however profoundly change my subjective feeling of the experience.

Instead of blaming myself for not being comfortable to keep up with the swim group I wanted to, I focused on technique and keeping a maximum sustainable effort. On the bike, I focused on being efficient, economical and being spot on in my nutrition plan.

When things got tough on the run, I did not blame myself for slowing down, but I encouraged myself to keep on pushing, on fighting and reminding myself of the amazing effort I have achieved so far.

The result was a PR of 8 minutes. More importantly, it was a good experience where I was able to go deep without digging my own mental grave at the same time. I finished leaving everything out there and finished happy.
— from Allan’s blog: Going mental with Adelaide Goodeve

[Read Allan’s blog, Going Mental with Adelaide Goodeve, to find out more about how we’re working together]

3. Dismantling the anxiety induced pressure

The feeling of pressure from yourself and others can often translate into feelings of anxiety. However, did you know that sporting events contain absolutely no pressure in and of themselves?

This is because pressure is an internal experience. The feeling of pressure is something you create and experience in your mind about a race and/or competition, when you think about the future and tell yourself inaccurate stories, such as ‘What if I lose?’, ‘What if I can’t do it?’, ‘What will my sponsors and coaches think?’ or ‘What if I fail to make the course record time?’. These thoughts, feelings and visualisations create unhelpful and negative feelings of anxiety and more.

Furthermore, the feelings of pressure manifest themselves physically (including increased heart rate and breathing etc.) mentally (helpful or unhelpful thoughts about the event) and emotionally (helpful or unhelpful feelings around the event). All of which will negatively impact your performance.

This pressure is usually created from expectations from yourself and others, such as your coaches, team mates, partners, sponsors etc. These expectations are often future goals or outcomes that you or others have made up and projected onto yourself. They may feel like pressure, but it is actually you who is transforming these expectations into feelings of pressure - you can choose to listen them or not.

As you might be able to see, you experience the feelings of pressure and the resultant anxiety, because you are often concentrating on the ‘wrong’ thing at the wrong time and creating this pressure and anxiety.

To get rid of these unhelpful feelings, you need to understand that it’s you creating the feelings of pressure and anxiety, and therefore if you created, you can dismantle it. Remember, there’s no difference between swimming, cycling and running in your training session and during a race - only your mind makes it different. Don’t attach meaning to your performance or the competition, when triathlon becomes more than just swimming, cycling and running, your focus is wrong.

Second, as a triathlete, what’s your job right now and on race day (hint: they’re the same!)?

• Is it to break the course record or swim, cycle and run as fast as possible?

• Is it to win or perform the race plan?

• Is it to break your personal record or race your best?

No, it’s to swim, cycle and run as fast as possible. A climber’s might be to get as high as possible in the least amount of moves. This will not change for either athlete if they’re on the world stage or training at home. Only their mind will make it different.

The key to dismantling pressure and anxiety is remembering your job: to swim, cycle and run as fast as possible. If you ever start feeling the pressure, say stop, remember your job and identify what you need to focus on right now.

4. Meditation

Meditation has been proven time and time again to reduce anxiety levels before and during races and competitions. There are now so many apps to choose from including Calm, Headspace and Insight Timer, and there are also some great videos online too, my favourite being Shona Vertue’s. I have yet to come across an app that offers meditation specifically for athletes, but all of these meditations on offer will help you train your brain to feel relaxed, calm and serene in all areas of your life.

As I talk about in my blog ‘How to improve focus and concentration during triathlons’, one of the world’s leading experts on high performance, Steven Kolter, advocates practicing Box Breathing, a technique the Navy Seals use to enhance their focus and also help with accelerating recovery.

Box Breathing is when you inhale, hold, exhale and empty your lungs, and hold each cycle (or side of the box) for 5 seconds, and the number seconds increases with your competency. By learning to focus through panic, this helps you to move past anxiety into a more relaxed state when you’re out training or racing.

You can also try meditating through action when training, like professional American obstacle and endurance athlete Amelia Boone. The best way is to either listen to one song on repeat or have no audio, and choose one thing you want to focus on during your training and racing. For the duration of the session, ensure your focus doesn’t deviate. Things will try and grab your attention, such as your own thoughts, doubts and stuff going on in your environment, but keep bringing your focus back to that one thing.

For example, fastest female marathoner of all time focused on her breathe and steps, and Born to Run author Christopher McDougall starts by focusing on easy running and once he’s mastered that moves onto light running, then smooth and then fast, or try something else that works for you!

5. Performance and process based goals

One of the key elements to performing at your best is to invest your mental energy and effort on things you can influence. You can choose what to focus on at any given time and often when you’re feeling anxious, it’s because you have a narrow, internal focus. For example, you might be locked into thinking (and worrying) about performing in the first 3 minutes of the swim start. When you have a narrow, internal focus it’s best to shift your focus to an external factor, like your environment. For example, you might focus on the atmosphere around you - the fun music, people’s breathing, sound of the water etc.

Anxiety levels also often increase when your focus is on things outside of your sphere of influence, such as a podium finish. This is the ‘wrong’ goal to have, because there are so many variables you can’t influence to achieve this goal, from the decision of the judge, other competitors, punctures, weather to bodily functions and more. 

To feel calm and confident in your ability to perform at your best, you must direct your focus to things you can 100% influence, such as your performance and actions. Performance goals (specific performance goals that are within your influence, such as swimming with the lead group of pro male swimmers) and process goals (actions that are required to achieve your performance goals, such as efficient swim stroke in a swimskin) can help you feel relaxed and confident, because they encourage you to focus on the task at hand and influential actions.

When creating your mental game plan for competition, answer and outline the following:

  • What point(s) of focus would help ensure I perform at my best?

  • When might my levels of focus waver and anxiety increase?

  • How can I stop this from happening?

  • How can I shift from an unhelpful focal point to a positive, productive focal point?

To read more about how to increase your levels of concentration and focus, read my blog here.

6. Increase your levels of self-confidence 

Sport psychology research consistently demonstrates that higher levels of self-confidence are associated with reduced levels of anxiety and when elite performers with high levels of confidence do feel anxiety, their interpretation of these feelings actually facilities their performance - not hinders it. This is because they reframe anxiety as excitement, feeling revved up and ready to go!

One of the best ways to increase your levels of self-confidence is to look for and see the evidence that you can achieve your goal. You can use evidence from your triathlon experience or use experiences across your life that prove to you that you can achieve your goals or master a skill. You could evidence as simple as tying your shoe lace or learning to drive a car to getting that promotion at work, winning that competition and achieving a PR.

As a mindset coach to athletes, I find the best technique to increasing levels of self-confidence is creating an awesome mental cookie jar. Each cookie in your brilliant jar represents a time when you overcame a obstacle, achieved a goal and/or a time that shows you that you can do it. Remember 3-5 times that will help you feel really confident about performing at your best and place them in your amazing cookie jar in your mind.

The next time you experience anxiety, pull out a cookie or two and remind yourself of the greatness within you.

When coaching all of my athletes, I use this technique or a similar one to ensure they’re confident about performing at their best. It’s taken US paraclimbers to National and World Championship competitions and helped Hovda break Norwegian course records. 

If you’re feeling anxious and nervous about an upcoming race send me an email to adelaide@adelaidegoodeve.com and we can arrange a coaching call - I’ve even be called  a motivational angel to the rescue!

Don’t hesitate to email even if it’s the day before, as I helped a paracanoe athlete in the Paralympic training team to shave 2 seconds from his monthly time trail with a single session the night before!