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Anxiety on race day part 2 - What's the worry?

So in the last blog post, we discussed why people suffer from anxiety on race morning. From my experience, anxiety is not related to your ability to 'complete the event'. Whilst the most common advice is 'don't worry... you've done the training' I think most people know they can finish the event, that's not why they're anxious. It's simply the surroundings and the situation which trigger anxiety. You can read the full post by GOING HERE.

This week we're going to look at what you can do to tackle anxiety and help you to formulate a strategy to better deal with race morning. I should point out that I'm not a qualified psychologist, but I have coached for 25 years and have gathered my own experiences and thoughts on the subject.

So... What is it exactly that makes you anxious? What is it exactly that you're worried about? This is a really important question to ask, because interestingly, when I've asked this question, the majority of people find it really hard to give me a precise answer. Usually they will give me an answer which relates to 'not being last or what others will think of them' but it often seems that they're really struggling to give a precise response, and those are the obvious options to go for.

Even the most experienced people wake up feeling anxious about events, despite the fact that logically, there's no reason to. They're experienced, more than capable of completing the distance and it's certainly not the first time they've taken part. The simplest way to explain this is 'situational anxiety'. For whatever reason, you simply associate attending an event with stress and anxiety, and on race morning, it triggers the reaction. If you find it hard to give a precise reason, then that's what's happening to you, race morning and everything about it, simply triggers anxiety.

A little is ok...

A little anxiety is a good thing, you perform better with a little anxiety and excitement. If this anxiety is negative and 'stressful' then it's not a positive experience. An obvious sign of this 'situational anxiety' is that your fears and worries disappear within a few minutes of beginning the event. If you were genuinely concerned about completing the event or being last, this fear would continue throughout the day, but for most people, once the event is underway, they relax and feel much happier.

So now you know...

Ok, so if you understand that events trigger anxiety, then it's relatively simple to resolve the issue. You need to understand that the cause of this anxiety is driven by a natural response from a certain part of your brain to 'protect you' and make you wary of certain situations. To some extent it's out of your control, it just happens.

So now you know that it's a natural response, to some extent you can separate yourself from it. When you wake up and the anxiety starts, you need to take a step back and say to yourself... "This anxiety is a natural reaction, it happens for every event and I was expecting it". The anxiety isn't logical, you know that there's nothing to fear, it's simply a reaction from a specific part of your brain. You need to recognise it, accept it and the separate it from your other, more logical thoughts.

If you don't separate yourself from it, there is a risk that it will completely consume you and it becomes the only thing occupying your mind. You won't even know why you're anxious, but it will ruin your event experience and performance.

Everyone would like to be that person who wakes up on race morning with a feeling of positivity and excitement. Do you wake up smiling and ready to race? Ready to take on the challenge? Or do you wake up anxious and think about staying in bed and not showing up?

Practice makes perfect...

This isn't something that you can just do without practice and you should start with smaller events. The biggest issue I find with 'sports psychology' is that people think they can just turn up on race day and apply a strategy. That's not how it works, you need to be aware of psychology issues and you need to practice multiple times before you get to the big day. This should be part of your pre-race routine and the more you practice, the better you will become.

Applying a strategy...

Here's some simple things you need to take into account and the simple process which you can go through on race morning.

1. Split your brain into 2 parts, there's the bit which to some extent is out of your control, this bit will react to race morning and trigger nerves. This part of the brain isn't the logical you! Then there's the other part of the brain, that's where you have the more rational thoughts.

2. When the anxiety starts, you should say to yourself... Ah, there's the race anxiety as usual, right on time. That's to be expected, it's not a bad thing, it's just a reaction from a part of my brain that's out of my control. It can stay there in the background, but you know from past experience that it always happens and it always goes once the race starts. It's nothing to worry about, it's natural.

3. The other part of your brain (the logical bit) should be focused on your strategy. You should have a plan / process that will help you to be in the right frame of mind and keep you focused on the game plan. My plan includes the following:

> I have a race day checklist which I plan beforehand and tick off in the morning, everything from breakfast to filling water bottles and checking tyres. This checklist helps routine and keep you focused.

> I have a race day play list which I listed to, I pick songs which put me in the right frame of mind and I put this on as soon as I wake up as music can be a huge motivator and influence your state of mind. Never underestimate the power of a race day play list.

> I have some key phrases, which I'll have written down the day before. I like to spend 30 minutes relaxing and thinking about the race ahead and how I'd like it to go. These phrases have changed from race to race depending upon a number of factors, includng my general attitude towards racing at that current time. I have a small note pad and the words from my last Ironman race (Wales 2018) are still scribbled on it. My key phrases for that day were...

"Just be the best you can be, you can't control anyone else"

"Enjoy it and smile, this could always be your last race"

"If they want to take it, they'll have to work for it"

The phrases and words can change completely depending upon the race, your objectives and just your general mood towards competition at that time. Those phrases were based on a whole load of thoughts that I'd had for the week leading up to that event. The statements will be very personal to your circumstances and I've even found that as I've got older, my view has changed dramatically in terms of what I want from each event. Spend 30 minutes thinking about the event, why are you racing it? What do you want from the day? What do you want to achieve? How do you see yourself on the day

Your objective may simply be to enjoy the day, smile all the way round and not pressurise yourself with regards to where you finish or what other think. Alternatively, you may want to win the race and to do that you see yourself suffering and dealing with the pain. It doesn't matter what your ability or objectives, take some time to think it through, then put that into 3 short phrases which you think sums it up best and most importantly write them down.

On race morning, I focus on the checklist, repeat those phrases and listen to the race day playlist. At all times I'm aware of the anxiety, that never goes away. I recognise it, and I understand that it's from part of my brain that to some extent I can't control. I will consciously accept it and then keep it under control and more importantly in the background. You have to practice the skill of 'separating & boxing' your anxiety, it requires time and commitment. Given the chance, your anxiety can rapidly consume you and become the dominant thing in your mind. When that happens, your race day plan / process will disappear as you lose focus. You can find yourself wondering round in a daze, forgetting items, feeling stressed (or terrified for some people) and you don't even know why. Your race plan goes out of the window because all of your logical thoughts and rational decisions become overwhelmed by anxiety.

The physical training process of structured swim, bike and run sessions is no more than physical conditioning and will not help you to deal with your event day in any way. Your mental strategy is perhaps the single biggest thing that most athletes can gain from, yet they attribute no time to it. The key thing to remember is that it doesn't make you a better athlete, but it does make you the best you can possibly be on any given day.

If you found this article useful, please share and feel free to ask any questions on our Facebook page. If you didn't find it useful, I'm afraid that 10 minutes of your life that you're not getting back.

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