Our team of experts are here to help; Evie Serventi talks psychology.
Q: I’m 23 and have been running for 15 years racing on track, cross country and road but recently something has been holding me back.
I never used to suffer much from pre-race nerves until about six years ago when after running a 200m race hard I was sick. I now race 400m to 800m on the track but haven’t had a PB for years because I get so nervous I freeze on the line, get really tense and hold myself back as I get worried I’ll feel sick again.
I’m also petrifi ed of racing hard but getting a poor time, so very often I won’t run my hardest at events to save myself the potential disappointment.
I don’t have this problem in longer races such as cross country and road races, and my I’m fine when training. Any advice to help me beat this?
A: Your history as a track runner sounds exciting. You’ve grown up keeping fit and healthy, had good exposure to competition and racing, and you’ve been able to push through comfort zones at a young age. These benefits, however, come with some hurdles, such as developing habits that are hard to break, and projecting emotions around past experiences into the present – which is what seems to be happening with your pre-race nerves.
If your 200m race six years ago ended with a good result despite your getting sick (i.e. you won the race or got a PB) you could try thinking about that positive aspect of the experience instead of the physical side (being sick). Start practising now and when you are not feeling tense, close your eyes and take yourself back to that race: think about the warm down, the hugs from family/fellow runners, how fit you felt at the time.
You’ll need to do this often so it becomes automatic.
Ask yourself: ‘What else happened that day (on the track) which may have caused me to be upset as well as sick? Think back about what was happening in your life around that time to break down what could have been bothering you and which is now causing fear to creep into something you love doing, i.e. racing. And talk to close fellow runners about how you feel – being sick on intense exertion isn’t uncommon on the track and it may help to hear how others view their similar experiences.
For your pre-race nerves, start by incorporating some breathing exercises into your daily routine, before you train or run. Attending a yoga class to get familiar with different types of breathing is a good place to start. I started doing yoga earlier this year when I was injured and couldn’t run, and the benefits to my strength and running have been fantastic.
The great thing about breathing exercises is that you can do them anywhere and even a few deep breaths can help you relax. Lots of yoga teachers offer running specific classes. You could try some progressive muscle relaxation techniques (google PMR) to bring into your daily training and before each race to help you lower your anxiety.
This technique involves slowly tensing then relaxing muscle groups with the idea being to help you differentiate between tense and relaxed muscles. The more aware you are of the differences, the more you’ll be able to coax your muscles into one state or the other.
You can practise these any time just as you can with breathing exercises, and the more you practise, the more effective they’ll be on race day.
Evie Serventi is deputy editor at Running Fitness magazine. She is a qualified journalist, keen runner and triathlete, and health mentor. She is also studying sports psychology and has a dedicated interest in training your mind.