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Anxiety on race day (part 1) - What's the worry?

On twitter recently I've noticed a growing trend for 'virtual races' or 'virtual events'. If you're not familiar with them, the basic principle is that you go and run 10k or any other distance (you can run any time, wherever you like) and then you send an email, proving you've ran 10k, who then sends you a medal for your efforts. There's no results, you're not running at the same time as other people, you simply go for a run and then you get a medal for it.

Now... I've got a few thoughts on this... firstly I'd like to say that ANYTHING which gets people out of the door and exercising is a good thing. I don't care if they're doing it for a medal or a t-shirt, they're running... and that's a good thing. However, let's be clear... these 'virtual races' or 'virtual events' are neither 'races' or 'events' and should not be named in this way for several reasons. I think perhaps 'virtual challenge' would be a better title. They are however, gaining in popularity and I have my own thoughts on why this is so.

Event anxiety

Everyone gets nervous before a big race or an event and a little anxiety can be a positive thing. I've coached hundreds of people over the years, from couch to 5k right through to elite level, so what is it that makes people anxious on the morning of a race or event?

Let's start with the novices, the person who has entered their first ever event. On the morning when they wake up, why are they nervous? From my experience, the one thing they are NOT nervous about is whether they can finish the event. They ALWAYS know they can finish, it might take them a bit longer, they might have to walk, but they know that they'll get there. This is a really important observation to make, in order to understand anxiety. When people are nervous before an event, for many it's NOT due to the challenge of the event itself. The physical effort required for completion, is NOT the thing that makes them nervous, yet the most common words of encouragement from their fellow runners and supporters tends to be "don't worry, you've done the training..."

The thing which makes them most nervous is the 'new situation'. They have never attended an event before, so they don't know what to expect as they have no prior experience. They won't know the people there, they won't know the format and they don't know how they will fit in. They also don't know how good the others will be compared to themselves, will there be other novices? In summary, it's a completely new environment which they've never experienced before and it scares them.

I know people who have completed couch to 5k programs and then gone on to take part in their first 5k or 10k event. Running can change lives and have a positive impact, but their biggest challege and the biggest fear for them to overcome was entering and attending the event. It was the SOCIAL challenges, not the PHYSICAL challenge which they overcame. Getting into running and completing 5k or 10k is relatively easy, being brave enough to enter and attend an event is a different matter entirely.

Given that these symptoms of situational anxiety occur for so many people, you can see why 'virtual races' would be appealing? You simply have to run the distance, which for many people, is not the difficult part.

I also blogged recently on how TRAINING seems to be more important to many than RACING. You can understand why this occurs, the training plan is a safe enviroment. It's just you, in the swimming pool, riding your bike or out running alone. The training plan does not put you in a new situation which is likely to create anxiety and to some extent, ticking off the sessions is your 'routine' and your 'safety blanket'. Training consistently and monitoring your progress is all fine, but on event day, it's most likely NOT the physical element which will be your greatest challenge.

It's not only novices...

Anxiety is something experienced by everyone, not just novices and it's important that you recognise how it can impact upon your 'event experience'. There are 2 key ways in which it impacts upon participants

1. It ruins your enjoyment - Whatever your level, enjoyment of events & races is critical. If you don't enjoy it, then at some point you're going to stop rather than continuing to place yourself in such a horrible enviroment. It's critical that you enjoy what you're doing, more specifically, it's critical that you enjoy participating in events, or what's the point?

2. It ruins your peformance - 'Mood state' has a huge impact upon performance, so if you're not happy, your ability to suffer and keep going when the going gets tough is massively compromised. Let's face it, you ain't going to run a PB if your journey there in the car is filled with "I don't want to do this". Anxiety will always stop you focusing on the plan that you should be implementing. Do you think those people who start far too quickly don't know that it's a suicidal pace? Of course they know... or at least they would if they calmed down and stopped to think about it.

What is it you're so worried about?

I've mentioned above that new situations creat anxiety. If you're joining a club, joining a group or attnding an event that's new to you, you may well suffer some anxiety. You don't know what to expect and the uncertainty can often stop you from attending or joining. What's more remarkable is the change which can occur, after attending only once.

For example, we run a coached open water swimming group and over the years we've coached hundreds of novice swimmers. So many of those swimmers are reluctant to attend for the first time and often require a great deal of encouragement. After attending only once, all of their anxiety has gone and I commonly hear them say "I didn't expect it to be like that".... So I wonder, what did they expect it to be like?

The reality is, they had no idea what to expect and that was causing the anxiety. How many people have been in that same situation and after their first visit to a new club, new group, park run etc come home feeling so much better and then 'never looked back'. The lesson to learn here is that new situations will almost always cause some level of anxiety, it's perfectly normal, but you need to take that step away from your safe routine and out of your comfort zone. the truth is that there's very few of us like change, some are just better at dealing with it. If you're anxious about a new group or event, recognise the feelings that you're having, but understand and accept it's perfectly normal (it's not just you).

The theme for this year is 'stepping out of your comfort zone'. For first timers, sporting events can be such incredible experiences, but an event is made up of so much more than the physical challenge. The life changing experiences which can occur and the memories that follow are based on the journey, the people you meet, the communites you join (not just online, but old skool face to face) and the fears you overcome.

For those who are experienced competitors, race day anxiety can be a make or break factor. How you manage your mind pre-race will probably be the single biggest thing you can do on that day to influence your performance. But in reality, following your plan and doing yet another length of the pool, another hour on the turbo or another 10k training run won't help you in that respect. You need to practice using your mind as much as your legs, it's the biggest weapon you have.

Next week we'll discuss the reasons why athletes get nervous and how they can control their fears on race morning. Stay tuned people and get out of your comfort zone.

Regards
The Endurance Store



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