Psyching Yourself Before Races


The hour before major events I train hard for can be nerve-wracking! The restless sleep the night before doesn’t help. The drive to the venue, finding a place to park, ensuring everything is in the gear bag, the walk to the starting area – they all build the tension and the butterflies in the stomach are fluttering wildly. The tension can rise as you see the other competitors – all looking fit and strong! Some people handle this time well, some badly. Research has shown that emotions before events influence the process and outcomes of events with some emotions such as anger and anxiety being associated with both successful and poor performance in athletes. So what do athletes do to manage these emotions in the hour leading up to the start of a major event? Here’s some British research that has examined the strategies widely used by athletes – and they are many and varied!

The Research

506 runners (189 males and 317 females) ranging in age from 16-67 years completed an online survey. Over half of the runners were 10k to marathon runners and they ranged from recreational (306) through to regional (48), national (26) and international (14) level. Runners were invited to complete the online survey through the Runners World website in the UK. They were asked to: Remember how you felt before you performed ina recent running event. This could be an orgnaised event or a training session but it should be one where you experienced intense emotions. Once you have an event in your mind, please indicate how you felt approximately 1 hour before performance. Then they were asked: In relation to how you felt before the performance above, what strategies did you use to influence the way you were feeling? it does not matter whether the strategies worked or not, please simply indicate those you used. They simply wrote down how they felt and what they did.

The Results

The strategies used were grouped into five general dimensions with a number of strategies used under each dimension:

  1. Task Preparation
    1. Goal setting (used by 23% of runners): “I look forward to seeing if I could improve my time” or “I focused on my goal and how good it would feel to achieve it”.
    2. Listening to music (9% of runners): Upbeat music with a strong tempo was most commonly referred to.
    3. Visualisation (8.5% of runners): Picturing themselves finishing in the time they aimed for or themselves running strongly up a hill or with great form.
    4. Task focus (physical) (5.5% of runners): Focused on physical aspects of race coming up. Long stride, relaxed arms, feeling relaxed etc.
    5. Physical preparation (4.5% of runners): Warming up to loosen up physically and mentally. Having routine of sunbscreen, toilet, stretch, warm-up leading to start.
    6. Task focus (4.5% of runners): thought about tactics and race strategy to allow best run.
  2. Avoidance
    1. Distraction (12% of runners): Chatting with friends or strangers, watching or listening to others.
    2. Downplaying outcomes (5.5% of runners): Deemphasised race outcomes by thinking why a poor performance may not happen such as ‘trained day before, been sick, got a sore foot etc.
  3. Positive Thinking
    1. Recall past accomplishments (12% of runners): “I have done this distance before so will be able to do it again” or “I’ve done the training, now let’s make it happen”.
    2. Anticipated pleasant emotions after the event (10% of runners): “It’s going to be great after the race” or “I’m going to be pleased with myslef after this one”.
    3. Self-Reassurance (6.5% of runners): Use positive affirmations and statements. “I’ve done the training”.
    4. General positivity (4.5% of runners): Thinking positively in all things leading up to the start.
    5. Active enjoyment (3% of runners): Focus on the event being fun, being shared with a training buddy or group.
    6. Anticipated benefits (3% of runners): The event is used as a lead up to another event or the benefits to my waistline!
    7. Doing one’s best (2% of runners): Focused on doing their best all things considered (family issues, disruptions tro training, injury etc)
  4. Negative Thinking
    1. Negative focus (8.5% of runners): “I tried to emty negative thoughts and think ‘calm'”.
    2. Reframing (7% of runners): Negative thoughts were thought through logically and rationally to suppress the negative.
    3. Anticipated negative emotions (3% of runners): Focsed on how embaressed they’d be if they did a bad time or DNF’d.
  5. Self in Relation to Others
    1. Receiving social support (5.5% of runners): Talked with others about how each other is feeling.
    2. Giving social support (3% of runners): Giving positive messages to less expereinced runners or someone in same situation and reassuring them.
    3. Drawing inspiration from loved ones or others (2.5% of runners): “I’m doing it for my brother who recently died” or “I’m raising funds for charity so must finish.”
    4. Avoiding others (1% of runners): “I like to keep away from others and stick to myself”.

The So What?

Psychology 101 tells us that we are all different. The study above suggests many different strategies are used by many different people to cope with pressure before an event. I hope the above list of emotion regulating strategies might be useful for you. I know I use many of the above strategies myself but have learnt over the years to control what I can control and forget the rest! I let the hype go on around me and stay very focused on myself, my pre-race routine, staying positive, and chatting with like-minded others just before the race. It works for me as an individual. It helps get the butterflies flying in formation!!

Stanley, D. and others (2012). Emotion regulation strategies used in the hour before running. International journal of sport and exercise psychology. 10(3): 159-171.