Sage Advice: Prerace Nerves

I’ve gotten a host of good questions from readers this morning and hope to cover them in the next few posts. One, via Twitter, is especially germane for me today, as I approach a challenging trail race on Saturday. Ainhoa asks, “Do you have something for managing stress, let’s say pre-race for instance.”

Yes! Both before and during the race, I come back to intention, form, and breath. First, I get clear on my intention for the race. This can be as simple as “have fun” or “keep pushing.” Once I’m clear on intention, I can make decisions that align with it. Next, I notice my form. Am I using the right amount of energy for what’s happening now? Pre-race, for example, am I tensing my hands, shoulders, or jaw when I start to think about the race? Where could I relax more? During the race, I check my form: standing tall, stepping quickly, relaxing everywhere I can given the demands of the pace. Finally, I watch my breath, using the breath that serves the moment. Pre-race, that can mean deep, full breaths with long exhalations. During the race, that can mean synching my breath with my footsteps.

Intention, form, and breath correlate to the first four limbs of yoga. Intention covers yama and niyama; form is asana (it should be steady and comfortable, the sutras tell us), and breath is pranayama. Once we’ve got these four limbs down, we’re ready to work on the next four, which are devoted to sharpening our focusing skills by turning our attention inward (pratyahara), focusing on one thing (dharana), focusing on many things simultaneously (diyana), and achieving blissful connection (samadhi).

Back to the practical: I also notice what I’m scared of. Is it weather? Weather is out of my control. Is it forgetting to pack an item I’ll need, like my Yaktrax? That’s in my control. I focus my energy on the things I can control, and I practice not getting uptight about the things I can’t control. Then I come back to intention, form, and breath.

Stress is not the enemy; stress is a catalyst for change. If you weren’t stressed, you wouldn’t grow. Pre-race nerves are a good thing, a sign that the upcoming task has meaning. If you’re feeling blasé about your race, you aren’t going to achieve a peak performance. Embrace the stress, but look to balance stress with rest. When stress is coming strong from one angle—be it physical or psychological stress—meet it with special attention to rest and recovery. Eat well, hydrate, sleep more, get a massage. (I’ve just come from my pre-race massage, in fact.) These techniques are outlined in my book The Athlete’s Guide to Recovery.