Race Anxiety: Advice From An Anxious Racer
We all know that feeling of butterflies in the stomach right before a race. For some it’s not a big deal, for others that sinking feeling in your stomach starts a week before the race. I was the latter. To top it off, I discovered a couple of years ago that I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I’m a single mom and work as a frontline healthcare worker (Anesthesia Assistant/Respiratory Therapist) and the stress of the Covid19 pandemic was just too much… I was intubating covid patients in the Emergency Department and on the floors, managing their ventilator settings in ICU, redeployed to a department working 12 hour shifts that I hadn’t worked in 12 years. I was managing to deal with it all… until I wasn’t. I was off on sick leave for almost 4 months. The silver lining however was realizing I am a very high functioning anxious person, with a new perspective on life.
So in taking care of my mental health, I searched for tools to help me deal with everyday life situations that are stressful. It’s incredible how many of these strategies can be applied to the nerves leading up to a race.
Ultimately you will have your best performance when you have the right amount of intensity while still being present and aware in the moment.
Tips for Helping Keep Anxiety to a Minimum
This is a technique for slowing down your breathing, lowering your heart rate and cortisol levels (a stress hormone), and relaxing your nervous system. It will focus your mindset on the present and away from worries of the past/future. Square breathing is really simple and can be done anywhere! Just breathe in slowly for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds, and pause for 4 seconds (hence the square), and repeat.
Head to Toe Check
Mentally go through your body from head to toe and check that the muscles are relaxed. As you breathe slowly in and out, check that your eyebrows are relaxed, your jaw isn’t clenched, your shoulders are relaxed, and go all the way down to your toes. It’s amazing how our bodies tense up without us realizing it, so it’s helpful to be cognizant of being in a relaxed state.
This is huge and competitors at the highest levels incorporate visualization into their training. Creating a mental image in your mind to improve athletic performance is well documented with scientifically proven benefits. Visualizing your race actually creates new neural connections in your brain, and improves the actual act of paddling/racing. The brain does not distinguish between real vs vividly perceived activity. It will also lower your anxiety level, which in turn will allow you to perform your best. It has many other benefits including handling pressure, training while injured, and mastering skills.
Tips for Practicing Visualization:
- Sit or lie in a comfortable position, and breathe deeply in and out.
- Pick one part of your race or go through the entire race and create an image in your mind.
- As you visualize performing it well, be sure to FEEL the senses of each movement, SEE yourself (from your own perspective, not as a third person) performing it successfully, and feel the EMOTION of doing it well.
- Do this 3 times (successfully) in a session.
- Practice 2-3 times per week for about 10-15 minutes.
During the week before a race, as soon as I start to think about race details and get anxious, I write down the details. Things like the timeline of when to wake up, how long the drive is, and address so I don’t panic looking it up on race morning. I also started to include what to pack and the main things I want to focus on for the race to improve, so that it refocuses my mental state on positive things. This works so well for me that I actually printed up a blank one to use for every race!
Create A Pre-race Warm-up
Develop a pre-race warm-up that you do at all of your training sessions. This takes the thinking (and anxiety) out of things on race day and allows you to show up knowing what you’ll be doing 20-30 minutes before your race.
Focus On The Present
Keep your mindset on the present, and don’t let it wander to thinking about future results of the race, or past mistakes… and when your mind does drift there, refocus back on the present situation and your paddling. I find it helpful to always be doing a ahead to toe check of my paddling technique as I’m racing. I also have some labels stuck on my board right by my GPS so that I can remind myself as needed to stay present.
Positive Mental Self Talk
The value of positive self talk is extraordinary. It’s not easy to do, but can be practiced just like your physical training, and it is the key to racing your very best. Focus on your overall goal of racing, which should be geared towards improving your own performance… as opposed to a tangible result of one specific race. After all the race results depend on who else shows up to the starting line and how THEIR training went, none of which you can control. One of my favourite books is “The Champion’s Mind – How Great Athletes Think, Train, and Thrive” by Dr. Jim Afremow. It is full of great examples of how to practically work on improving your mindset, and fully referenced with scientific studies.
Listening To Music
Using my earbuds and listening to music that gets me excited is a huge help in keeping the negative self talk away. I use music during my warmup to calm myself down and not get distracted by anyone else’s anxious energy, and during the race itself to stay present and in the moment. I’ve raced with and without it, and I feel totally different during the race when I have music on. A much more positive experience.
Train as best you can before a race, so that you can trust in your talent on race day. The level of training will be different for everyone, depending on your goals and life priorities. Remember that each year you will learn more about racing and how you want to perform. Search out great coaches and paddling partners. And most of all be kind to yourself and enjoy the process!
Whenever possible, try to do a reconnaissance paddle and get to know the conditions. Every location has its own characteristics and water conditions, which is why racing in various locations is so much fun! A good example of this is the Graveyard race at Carolina Cup… it’s a really good idea to get there a few days before the race so that you can get some practice in at Mason’s Inlet and to get your sea legs under you if you’re not used to paddling in the ocean.
Know That You’re Always Learning
Journalling is something I find helpful so I make notes for myself right after each race, which I can refer back to the following year. Notes on wind and water conditions, race starts, things that really worked well and things that I would do differently next time. Racing isn’t really about a single result, but that you’re learning and improving.
Remember some nerves are good and mean that the race matters to you. Hopefully some of these techniques will help you control your nerves so that you can be present and aware to have the best performance possible!