Dealing with Pre-Race Jitters

In the days before a race, some pre-race jitters and nerves are normal.

Whether it’s your first race or your 50th, whether it’s your ‘A’ race of the year or a small neighborhood 5k, a few butterflies or a spinning mind filled with ‘what-ifs’ can usually be relied upon to hit in those last few days and hours before you toe the start line.

But you can calm those nerves and productively channel that energy to help your race day preparation.

How to Prepare for Pre-Race Jitters During Your Training

Some techniques for dealing with pre-race nerves need to be practiced and developed during training. Routines and rituals will only be effective when they are developed and practiced over time.

Pre-Long Run and Pre-Race Routine

During your training, create a standard routine for the things you do the night before and the morning before a long run.

  • Eat dinner at (roughly) the same time.
  • Do (basically) the same activities.
  • Go to bed at (roughly) the same time.
  • Eat the same breakfast.

Get your body used to the routine. On race day, your usual long run routine will easily become your pre-race routine.

Developing a routine will give you a reliable set of actions to fall back on and will:

  • Decrease nerves before race day – you’ll just be doing the things your body and your mind have done dozens of times before.
  • Make an uncomfortable and unknown circumstance familiar. Especially if you’re doing a racecation to a new spot, in the days before the race, you may be in unfamiliar surroundings. When you can fall back on the routines you know, you’ll be on familiar ground, at least mentally.
  • Give you something you can control. So many things will be out of your control on race day, having a routine will give you something you are 100% in charge of.
  • Make it less likely stuff gets forgotten. Race day can be stressful, and it’s easy to overlook a necessary step. Having a long run/race morning routine will put many of your to-dos on auto-pilot (in a good way). 

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Like your physical endurance, visualization is a skill that needs to be practiced, so you’ll be able to call on it when you need it.

During your training, practice visualizing yourself powering up a hill or finishing a long run strong. Develop your visualization skills.

Then, in the days and night before the race, visualize yourself on race day. While it may be called ‘visualization,’ it’s more powerful when you use all of your senses. As you see yourself on race day:

  • What do you see?
  • What do you hear?
  • How do you feel?
  • What do you taste?
  • What movements are you making physically?

Visualization is best when it’s positive. As you imagine race day, visualize the start line, the course, and the spectators cheering you on in ideal conditions. Imagine yourself feeling amazing.

But if you (like me) occasionally find yourself imagining negative scenarios, use that to your benefit.

Visualize the obstacles you may face on race day. And – this is key – picture yourself overcoming those obstacles.

If you imagine race day only to see buckets of rain, see yourself pulling out your rain jacket and powering on (and remember to add ‘rain gear’ to your race day packing list).

Don’t dwell on potentially negative scenarios, but considering them (and ‘seeing’ yourself crush them) can make it easier to deal with on race day.

To Do In the Days Leading Up to the Race

This is what most people think of when they think of pre-race jitters – dealing with the nerves in the days before the race. 

Write it Down

If/When pre-race nerves get to you, do a brain dump of everything you have floating around in your head. Break out a pen and paper and write stuff down.

My pre-race brain dumps are a combination of things:

  • Lists and packing lists (don’t forget this or that)
  • Things I need to research (where exactly is race parking? Does race day bib pick-up start at 6:30 or 7?)
  • Worries (what if I bonk? what if I can’t finish- will my family waiting at the finish line be disappointed?)

When things are written down:

  • Lists can be turned into to-do lists and packing lists that can be followed (to make sure things aren’t forgotten)
  • Questions can be researched and answered
  • Fears can be addressed. Some fears, when taken out of your head, don’t seem nearly as bad (or realistic). Others can be thought though and planned for (if your fear is you’ll bonk, consider your fueling plan – will you be carrying enough fuel? How often do you want to fuel?)

Focus on What You Can Control

There are dozens of things you can focus on and worry about in the days before a race (trust me, I’ve worried about them all at some point in the last 20 years).

Some of those things you can do something about, some things you can’t.

The weather is a common worry for many runners (As the old joke goes: What’s the favorite hobby of tapering marathoners? Amateur meteorology).

But focusing on the weather idlely (“It’s supposed to rain on race day, that’s going to suck”), will not do you any good.

It will rain (or it won’t) on race day.

It will be a nasty heat wave (or it won’t) on race day.

You can’t change that.

Instead, consider what you can control. For example, you can control what wet weather or hot weather gear you have prepared.

Focus on the things you can control and the things you can prepare before your race.

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Plan and Prep What You Can

Make a plan, make a timetable, and talk to your friends and family that will be coming out to support you.

  • What time do you need to wake up? 
  • What time do you need to leave the house? 
  • How much time do you need/want at the start area before the race starts? (hint: whatever amount of time you need, add at least 20 minutes to it – stuff will happen on race day, and you’ll always benefit from a time cushion
  • Where (exactly) will your family be after the race? This isn’t a huge issue for smaller races, but for large races with thousands of people, finding your family after the race can be a problem. 
  • Review the start line map. Where (exactly) are the porta potties? Where (exactly) is bag check and the start line? 

Do what you can in the days before the race. If you can pick up your bib number in advance, do it, and pin your number on the night before.

Layout your gear, pack your drop-bag, fill your hydration pack (at least) the night before.

Get everything you can get done, done.

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Make sure you get enough sleep, especially the night-before the night before the race.

The negative impacts of poor sleep can take a few days to develop. If you don’t sleep well the night before the race (which is super common), once you get up and out of bed (maybe with a cup of coffee in you, if that is part of your long-run/race routine) it likely won’t be too noticeable.

But if you’ve slept poorly or not enough during that entire week? That will have a much bigger impact on your race day performance.

Make sure you are following a solid sleep routine all week.

Develop a Pre-Race Ritual

Before Skyline, I matched my nail polish to my race shirt. Why not?

Have a ritual you do the night before your race.

For me, I spend the night before a race painting my nails bright or goofy colors. Why? I don’t remember where this started, but it’s become a pre-race ritual, and when done in conjunction with my other usual pre-long run/pre-race routine is a signal to my brain to get race ready.

Know Your Triggers

Are there specific things that make you anxious as you approach race day?

Being aware of your triggers may not make them go away, but just being aware of them can help. And when you’re aware of them, you can maybe lessen your exposure.

If I’m doing a big race, I know the expo will make me nervous. I’ll be totally chill about an upcoming race, then I get to the expo and I’m a bundle of nerves. There is just something about the mass of people and the nervous energy that gets me worked up.

While I can’t avoid the expo (and I wouldn’t want to even if I could- I love a good race expo), I can be ready for it and minimize the amount of time I spend there.

Good luck and happy running!

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