The Nerve: Race Anxiety


It’s inevitable these days, a debilitating race anxiety hits that’s so overwhelming it’s actually scary. Heartbeats pound strong enough I feel as if my chest will shatter. Night sweats drench my pajamas. And a stomach twisted with nervous energy ensures the probability of getting any solid food down is next to nothing. Tackling new distances seems to exacerbate things, as I step into the unknown. But this unwelcome “visitor” appears before the start of almost any race. Fortunately I’m not alone, and this problem is all too common. But how’s it possible to disconnect the body from the mind?

In the book Peak Performance by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness, mindfulness meditation is described as a way to “turn it off – stress to rest.” The book states, “When we challenge ourselves – whether by running a hard workout, learning how to play a new instrument, or working tirelessly to solve a complex problem – we are triggering a stress response in the brain. By strengthening our prefrontal cortex, mindfulness allows us to recognize that we are having a stress response rather than automatically being overcome by it.” So how do you practice mindfulness meditation? Here are some simple steps, as explained in Peak Performance:

  • Remember the power of mindset: How you view something fundamentally changes how your body responds to it.
  • In situations when you feel the sensation of stress, remind yourself this is your body’s natural way of preparing for a challenge.
  • Challenge yourself to view stress productively, and even to welcome it. You’ll not only perform better, you’ll also improve your health.

What happens when you realize your body is overwhelmed by an upcoming race, and you’re unable to control the stress response? Eric Byrnes’ book, The F*IT LIST, dives into how he handled the psychological aspects of playing Major League Baseball. After reading different books on martial arts as well as The Mental Game of Baseball, Eric says, “What was amazing through all of my readings was how the message of ‘staying in the moment’ resonated as the key ingredient in reaching your full potential.” Whether you’re about to run your first 50K or your first 100-miler, staying in the moment can keep you focused on the task at hand. Prepping your drop bags or briefing your pacers on their upcoming duties can keep you from worrying too much about your race.

Finally, if you find yourself with a head full of doubt, reach out to your favorite running friends who’ve offered support in the past. Keep them close at hand when the going gets tough, and you’ll appreciate the words of encouragement when it’s all you need to get to the starting line. Make sure to keep a number of options in your back pocket in case pre-race stress reaches an all-time high. It’s never too early to prepare, and you never know how much your mindful meditation will improve your performance on race day.


About Author

Amy Clark is the Editor of UltraRunning Magazine. She began her career at a small advertising agency in Bend, Oregon, where she enjoyed the fast pace and creative environment. For over 15 years, lunch hour runs were a ritual. Amy also joined the board of the local running club, became a race director and finished her first ultra. She has completed over 35 marathons and ultras combined, and continues to run long distances while encouraging both kids and adults to ignite their own passion for running.

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