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How to Psyche Yourself Up Without Psyching Yourself Out

Races are funny things. Signing up is exciting, training is {usually} rewarding, and the race itself fills you with joy after you’re finished (most of the time, anyway). But those weeks leading up to the race? Those can be a killer! In fact, sometimes I think waiting for a race to start can be worse than actually running it. Especially because it’s so easy to let the nerves get the best of us.

I’m sure we’ve all done it (and I know I have!) – we build this one race up in our heads so much that it’s all we can think about. And we put so much pressure on ourselves to do well in that one race that instead of getting excited, we become increasingly more anxious. By the time race day rolls around, we’re so crippled by the anxiety that we fall apart. What should have been a great race turns into a nightmarish day as we crumple under all the pressure.

Instead of psyching yourself up, you’ve just psyched yourself out.

Don’t get me wrong – pre-race jitters are a good thing. It’s important to pump yourself up for a race. If you just look at it as another training run, you’re ultimately just going to run it as though you would do a training run…and then what’s the point of racing? So I think you need to be a little worked up when race day comes around. But the trick is to not overdo it. To build up the excitement without leaving yourself trembling in fear.

So if you want to psyche yourself up without psyching yourself out, here are a few strategies that have worked for me in the weeks leading up to a big race.

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1.) Visualize

You have a goal for this race. And whether it’s to run a certain time or just to finish, chances are that goal is a little scary. After all, we make goals in order to push ourselves….so it wouldn’t be a good goal if it were easy!

Once you have that goal in your head, you can’t just push it away into the dark corners of your mind and then hope everything will come together on race day. You need to visualize it. For my last marathon, my goal was to run a 3:20:59 – which would not only be a PR, but would also be fast enough to allow me to register with the first wave of runners for Boston 2012. Although I thought it might be a long shot, I knew I was going to give it my absolute best try. So in the weeks leading up to the race, I put “3:20:59” on everything – such as the background of my phone, and the wallpaper of my work computer. I even hung up little notes with my goal time around the house. I focused on it during my final runs of training so much that it became my new mantra. Basically, I wanted that time to be etched into my brain.

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Now if I had just stopped at this step, things probably wouldn’t have gone so well. I would’ve gotten so anxious obsessing over my goal race time that I psyched myself out. So once you’ve started visualizing your goal, it’s important to follow up with a few key things.

2.) Have Confidence

It’s easy to let doubt enter into your mind, especially during the taper period when your activity level is low and your anxiety level is at a record high. So during this time, it’s pretty crucial to have confidence – confidence in your training and confidence in yourself. As Aron recently wrote, you need to think about “what you did do“…. and not obsess over what you didn’t. Focus on the training that you’ve done, and how that has not only prepared you for race day, but has made you a stronger runner. Whenever I feel doubt kicking in, I like to tell myself “you are stronger than you think” and repeat it over and over until I believe it.

It also helps to focus on specific times in your training when things went really well. Those confidence-boosting workouts that leave you believing you can do this. For me, one of those was the Black Cat 20-mile race. Before that race, I had absolutely no confidence that I could go out at a relaxed pace for the first few miles of the marathon and still finish strong. I figured I’d slow down at the end no matter how fast I started, so I better start my long races as fast as I comfortably could to give myself a buffer for later. Black Cat showed me the opposite, and it helped me believe in myself on race day.

LB Black Cat

3.) Find Inspiration

No matter how hard you try, chances are you’re not going to spend the final weeks leading up to a big race completely full of confidence the entire time. There will be moments when the crazies get the best of you, and anxiety starts to slip in. During these times, find inspiration somewhere else. Read a book about a runner, be a spectator (or watch races on TV), or watch movies about running or inspiring runners.

A few days before the National Marathon, Becky and I got together to watch Spirit of the Marathon. It’s a documentary about the Chicago marathon that highlights several runners (elites and just regular old joes like you and me) who are running it. The movie is truly a celebration of the marathon and left me incredibly excited to run one (although at the time, I was wishing it were Chicago, but that’s another story….)

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Other great ones to watch are Prefontaine and Without Limits (which is also about Prefontaine) – clearly I have a thing for him.

4.) Make a plan

Making a plan for the race is another great way to ease some of that anxiety and build your confidence. Not only do you need to plan race logistics – how you’re going to get there, what you’re going to wear, if you’ll have people cheering for you and if so, where they’re going to stand, etc – but you also need to have a race strategy. Especially for a longer race. You can’t really just show up and start running. You need to decide how fast you want to go out, if you’re going to attack the hills or take them easy to conserve energy for the rest of the course, if you’re going to use the run/walk method, if you’re racing for a specific place or going for a time, etc etc etc. This plan can be as general or as detailed as works for you. One thing Corey suggests (that I’ve never tried) is writing a race script that includes images you’d see during a race and phrases you will be repeating to yourself throughout. These should be positive and focus on how you want to feel and think (versus how you think you will feel when the pain of running kicks in).

celebrating life shirts

Obviously things aren’t ever going to go exactly according to plan on race day. We can’t control every circumstance, and you never really know what could come up. But going in with a plan will help you feel confident that you’re about to do all you possibly can to reach your goal.

5.) Relax

Finally – and most importantly – you need to relax!! Don’t get all worked up over thoughts of the race. Sure, a little anxiety is a good thing because it boosts your adrenaline and will help your performance. But too much anxiety is crippling. To keep that anxiety under control, find fun, relaxing things that will take your mind off the run and bring you peace.

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Stop checking the weather every 5 minutes, obsessing over your race outfit or sending anxiety-ridden texts to all your friends. Go out and enjoy yourself! Have dinner with a friend, eat ice cream, watch movies, read….whatever helps you chill out. And remind yourself that you are strong, you are confident, and you will to have a great race.

 

These are just a few key things I try to do leading up to race day that will pump me up without leaving me crippled with anxiety. But I know there are lots of other great strategies that people use. What other suggestions do you have?

43 Responses to How to Psyche Yourself Up Without Psyching Yourself Out

  1. I love this Lauren! And I’m totally guilty of always psyching myself out for races, as you know ;)
    For the visualizing, I usually recall a strong race or training run and picture myself doing it again. And having confidence is a huge key!

  2. A very timely post for me, since I’m in my first taper week. I agree 100% with everything you said! I always remember it’s mind over matter too. No matter how well you train, if your mind isn’t on board, your body won’t be on board. It’s more mental than anything!

    I LOVED Spirit of the Marathon too. So inspiring!

    • Yes! The mind is so important! I think mental strength gets overlooked a lot, but the truth is that my best races have had more do to the fact that I stayed strong mentally than whether I was in perfect physical shape.

  3. This is perfect. I am definitely guilty of psyching myself out before races. I absolutely love training for them, but as soon as the race approaches, I regret that I ever registered and I want to hide in my bed. I’ve never actually done that (although I’ve come close!) but I know that my best races come when I’m most relaxed. And I’d like to add:

    5) Keep your closest running friend on speed dial. She will know how you’re feeling and talk you down. Thanks ;)
    Becky´s last post ..A Rest Day Recipe

  4. Thanks for this! Freaking out about Boston as I type this, but your post is helping me shake my tunnel vision and feel calmer about the next five days.

    • I can completely understand! I was a nervous wreck before I ran Boston too. But I hope you’re able to calm the nerves in the next few days. Just remember – you’ll have thousands of screaming fans to cheer you through those city streets. And yeah, it’s still a marathon and is going to be tough no matter what, but the party-like atmosphere is going to feel pretty awesome. :)

      Good luck!!

  5. This is such a great post as I think I might be psyching myself out right now! Thanks for the advice :)
    Page´s last post ..Boston Marathon 2011 Playlist

  6. This is all very true. Usually the week before an event is when I am at risk for psyching myself out! And my family/friends know not to speak to me the morning of a race! I’m usually completely “in my zone” at this point. I try to stick with my rituals before a race to keep relaxed (same meals, motivating iPod playlist, packing the essentials the night before, etc.)
    Great read – thanks!
    Kate @ NaturaStride´s last post ..Tough Mudder- PA – Recap!

    • haha, yes, I am also not the best person to be around on race morning. I like to think that I’ve gotten better over the years, but the nerves take away my rationality…and my sense of humor.

  7. Great advice. My pre-race routine definitely includes watching Spirit of the Marathon the night before the race.
    DC Runographer´s last post ..Save the Clock Tower 5K and a cycling accident

  8. Wow!! I should have read this before I ran my marathon this weekend!

    I so completely psyched myself out, what with not getting enough training in and then a nasty piriformis/ITB injury, that I was massively anxious in the weeks/days/hours/minutes leading up to it and then I didn’t enjoy the race at all :(

    Thanks so much for opening my eyes up to a whole new perspective! I’ll bear this in mind for the next one!
    Laurie @ thesehappyfeet´s last post ..Watch out Paris!

  9. Did you write this post just for me?! :) Haha, just kidding. But seriously, this is totally what I need right now. I know this is such a critical time mentally, leading up to the marathon. I know I can either go through each day getting more anxious and more doubtful of myself, or I can focus on having confidence, visualizing, and maintaining the belief that I can do it. My time goal isn’t as specific as yours was, but I still have a pace I want to start at and goals on how I want to run my race, so I need to visualize myself running that pace, maintaining control and positivity. Thinking back on previous great runs/races is a huge one for me – if I did it before, I can do it again. Making a plan is also key for me, because then I have something to focus on other than how nervous I am. I’m glad you thought the visualization script was interesting – let me know if you try it in any of your upcoming races, because I’d be curious how it works for other people! This is such great advice. Thank you so much for posting this at such a good time for me! I know I’ve said this too many time, but you are amazing and the mental journey you took to get to your National marathon is incredibly inspirational to me, Lauren. Can’t wait to see you soon!
    Corey @ the runners cookie´s last post ..North End Adventures

    • First of all, thank you – that really means a lot. :)

      And secondly – you’re right, you’ve done this before and you can most definitely do it again! I am so excited for you and I know that as long as you keep your confidence up, you’re going to have an amazing race!

  10. Great race. I also like repeating “you are stronger than you think” Another thing I like to do to psych myself up is to envision the feeling after a good run – the runner’s high!

  11. * I meant great tips ;)

    • It always helps me to think about that as well! To tell myself it’s going to be worth it at the end, and that I want to finish being proud that I tried as hard as I could during the race, no matter what happens.

  12. This is just what I need. I’m trying to follow along all your rules, but mostly I’m trying to just stay calm. Getting worked up, losing sleep is not going to help me on race day. Mantra’s are really going to help come race day. And the fact that I know this course SO well. I’m praying I will be able to live up to my expectations. Even if I’m saying I don’t have any, of course I do. I really appreciate you writing this Lauren. It will give me the confidence I need come race day.
    lizzy´s last post ..Last Run Runner Bloggers!

    • You are going to rock it Lizzy! I know it! But most of all, I hope you’re able to have fun running on this course that is so familiar to you. I can’t wait to cheer you on!

  13. We need to have a Pre-fest together. We can wear old school Oregon shirts and watch every pre movie ever while excitedly yelling our favorite prefontaine quotes. Before big races I like to write out my “why I’m going to kick ass” list. (this will probs be up on my blog in the very, very near future)

    I also listen to pump up music ALL week long.
    Emily´s last post ..Toasting Taper

    • Yes please!! That would be amazing. I’m getting geekishly excited just thinking about it.

      Also, I want to read that list so I can copy it for my next race ;)

  14. This is a great post and can definitely be related to any goal – I especially love visualizing. So true! I put important goals into my phone, on my fridge, on post-it’s on the computer, etc. It’s so helpful. Along with inspiration, I also use mantras while running or just in general. Repeating things like “I’m strong, I’m powerful” “I’m a runner” “I can do it”, etc. are really, really helpful in keeping the negative thoughts out!
    Erin @ Big Girl Feats´s last post ..Out of the Closet- Part 1

  15. Great post Lauren! I love that you posted your goal time all over your house :) That is definitely something I would do! That last photo is absolutely beautiful btw, where was it taken? I love the race script idea!
    Kim´s last post ..Boston Bandits

  16. ahh, totally bookmarking this. You are so spot on! I try to do all of these things, and definitlely realize if one is missing (most likely this is the relaxing part – why is it so hard??). Staying confident is key for me too, and just remembering that anything can happen on race day and do deal with things I can’t control, like weather, etc. the best I can and not stress about it.
    Kelly´s last post ..More Baking with Pumpkin

  17. This is a great post; thank you!
    Kathy @ newlywedindc´s last post ..April

  18. I love this post! Haha, “stop checking the weather every 5 minutes”–that’s totally me:). Everything you included here is so important, but hard to do! I love that you had your goal time everywhere, it brings me back to high school when I had my 800 m PR goal taped up everywhere–it took a while, but I finally made it! I’ll always remember that day:).

    Have fun this weekend!!!!:)
    Erin @ Until You Tri´s last post ..Girls’ Weekend and an Amazing Bike Ride

    • haha I do it too, but I always need to remind myself to step away. I’m not going to miss anything.

      And there really is nothing like the feeling you get when you finally reach a goal that you’ve been working toward for so long. That feeling is what keeps me racing. :)

  19. I have been wanting to run a race for awhile now and this post motivated me to go ahead and just do it!
    kate@ahealthypassion´s last post ..Feeling Green

  20. what an awesome post! I’m going to bookmark it so I have it ready for prerace jitter time! Thanks for sharing :)

  21. I’m definitely going to steal your idea of posting times & motivation everywhere. I would love to PR in my next half in a month, and seeing my goal may help. The hardest thing for me is confidence the day before/day of a race because I worry about going out too fast and imagine everything that could go wrong.
    Lauren´s last post ..Dark Chocolate Wonders

  22. I love this post, Lauren! I’ve definitely used the idea of concentrating on when training went really well to boost my confidence before a race. In fact, most of your guide could apply to other areas of life as well! In nutritional counseling, I often suggest clients focus on when things “went right” and they were able to achieve their nutritional goals, to help boost confidence and visualize how they will achieve their current goals. It’s pretty powerful stuff!

    By the way, I love that first picture of you with that huge smile on your face – made me smile! :D

  23. Thanks Lauren. I’m reading this as I battle pre-race jitters for Boston. Every little ache and pain is magnified in my head. Feeling somewhat crazy and wishing I was at mile 2, where I expect I will have calmed down. Reading your logical and experienced advice is helping keep me sane! : )

  24. I am SO glad I just read this post. I am scheduled to run a half on the 30th and had a certain time goal in mind… then I came down with bronchitis and my training has been majorly effected by it for almost a month now.

    I’ve ran this race the past 2 years & it kicked my butt, I wanted redemption this year but have been discouraged since I became sick. But, I’m going to use the tips above to keep myself psyched up & confident and remember I did everything I could to just be able to RUN that day and I will have a great race!!
    chandra´s last post ..Fun Fact Friday Returns!

  25. I really needed to read this today. I had a horrible training run yesterday. I totally psyched myself out; my legs felt like lead… I gave up and restarted what seemed like a million time but at the end I finished it (with many many walking breaks as I told myself I was just “done”). It’s so important to be prepared both physically and mentally!!

  26. i love this post. just started spirit of the marathon. good recommendation! i think there is nothing more inspirational than watching the boston marathon! watching yesterday motivated me to start thinking that i can run marines corp in the fall, which will be (gasp) my first marathon!

    • That’s awesome!! So exciting – and I’m going to be running that one too! :)

      • Really?! Awesome, have you run it before? I will be the person an hour behind your amazing pace, but hey if you ever need an easy day run i am always eager to find people to run with. I figure i have tons of time to train. right now going to start focusing on hyannis half at the end of may. Did you ever get my email back to you after you responded to my comment, i think i did it wrong..

        • This will be my first time! I’m really excited. My parents ran it a long time ago and I’ve wanted to do it ever since. I think it’s one of those big marathons that would be great to cross of the list.

          And I’m not sure if I got the email – sometimes they get mixed in with comments I’ve already read. But I will go back in and check again. Sorry!

          • People say it is suppose to be a great marathon. I was signed up for it last year but could not do it because I took two bar exams in july and my training went down the tubes so i deferred it, which is fine because now i have tons of time.

            might have been that i did it wrong and that i replied in the wrong way. mainly i said for the short recap that i have read back a bunch of your posts and i love your blog. can relate to many of the posts. i am trying to make my running more social so i love chatting with other runners and reading the blogs and running with them! also noticed your public health love and said we should chat because i always specialized in health care in school and now work..

  27. I LOVE this post!

  28. Padraig MacLochlainn

    I wonder could I use this formula for golf? I used to play off 1 h/cap but got the yips & my h/cap has shot up to 6, there’s a big tourney coming up in a few weeks & anxiety is setting in, I still hit the ball well tee to green, just need to overcome this poor negative mental state, I’ll give it a try, firstly I’ve to visualize 65 as a number to shoot, secondly I’ve to gain confidence in my putting, inspiration is built in because I’ve been waiting 25 years for this,I’ll have to plan out where to place the ball on each hole and lastly try to relax!! wish me good luck.

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