From the Field

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Dear Podium,

I’ve been having a tough time getting through the jitters before each race. I don’t sleep well the night before the Sunday crits and by the time the gun goes off, I’m toast. I’m usually tired, lethargic and lucky to stay with the peloton. I love being in the peloton. It’s exciting….but I fear I don’t belong. It just weighs on me all the time. I’m so tired of this happening and I wonder if it’s still worth racing.

Sincerely,
Mr. Jitters

Response by Dr. Kristen Dieffenbach

Dear Mr. Jitters,

Pre-race nerves are a common feeling. In fact, they aren’­t such a bad thing. They help give you the extra edge to get ready for competition. They provide the punch off the line. And, let’s face it, the anticipation of a race and the challenge ahead can be exciting. But when your nerves are mostly rooted in doubt, they increase your anxiety, undermine your confidence, hurt your performance, and ultimately zap your joy of riding. This doesn’t mean it is time to hang up the helmet though – it means it is time to get to the root of the negative nerves and change how you think about racing.

Since your concerns center on a feeling of being out of place in the peloton, let’s take closer look at what it takes to fit in. What are the demands of racing at this level? Do you have a clear idea of what exactly it takes in terms of both fitness and skills to be a part of the group? Too often, riders focus on the finish line, but forget to consider what it is going to take to get there. As you identify things, consider not only physical demands but also skill work like easy of movement in a pack and smooth sprint transitions. Once you have identified the demands of racing, evaluate yourself on each point. (It can be helpful to ask a trusted teammate or coach to evaluate your current abilities as well to help ensure that your self assessments are realistic and fair.) Having an understanding of what it takes to race successfully, what your strengths are, and where you can improve will allow you to plan your training with a clear sense of purpose. This will also help build your confidence as you will be working on things you have control over like your effort and skill development.

On a weekly basis, review your training and focus on what you have done and what you have accomplished that are important parts of peloton racing. Don’t expect perfection and don’t dwell on things you haven’t done yet. Instead, strive for consistency in training and put your energy into looking for creative ways to practice different aspects of racing during your daily workouts. As races approach and you begin to get nervous, set goals that will allow you to test the things you have been working on in training and consciously remind yourself of the preparation work you have done.

Ultimately, harnessing nervous energy for positive performance is about focusing on the things you have done and the challenges you are excited about rather than dwelling on things that aren’t your strong points. It takes a lot of time and energy to worry and be nervous about something. With practice, this energy can be refocused to be better spent on racing.

Response by Dr. Stephen Walker

Dear Mr. Jitters,

There are a few things you say that reveal a couple of concerns. Unless you get this pattern shifted into a more constructive and enjoyable experience, you may stop racing because it feels like too much stress. My guess is that you train a lot better than you perform on race day. You might be a really tough customer when training competitively, but you lose it when it gets official. I can think of a few suggestions that might help you turn the corner. I hope they are helpful.

Your expectations may be unrealistic for what you are supposed to be feeling. Virtually every athlete gets the jitters to some extent before competition… Some of them actually look forward to it because they feel energized and know that their focus is where it needs to be. You sound as if the jitters are a bad thing. Maybe if you changed your mind about what that means for you, or made a conscious decision to think differently about all that energy, you might be able to redefine the experience in a positive way.

Some people can be “obsessive” in their experience of pre-race anxiety. They may envision all kinds of things and some of them may be completely unrealistic. I’m concerned you might be setting yourself up for overload prior to the gun. If what you expect is to be competitive, then accept the fact that you are going to perform well some days, and not so well other days. The Sunday morning crits are not the Tour de France. Talk to your coach about what’s realistic to expect from yourself and what’s not. That doesn’t mean you don’t stretch your limits or challenge yourself. It just helps to start out with a more realistic mindset.

If you don’t have a particular routine for managing stress and controlling your anxiety, now might be a good time to develop one, especially if your jitters are causing you to lose focus and make mistakes. Biologically, some of us are wired a little tight. If so, we can really benefit by practicing techniques to help us calm down. Best case scenario, I’d suggest you get a Psychophysiological Biofeedback Profile (costs around $150). A profile will look at various systems in your body (heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, breathing patterns, electrodermal response, peripheral blood flow, etc.) and assess how your body responds in relaxed, aroused and recovery conditions. This information can lead to a very specific and personally designed stress management routine that will keep you focused and calm.

Because you talk about feeling fatigued and sluggish prior to the race, my guess is that you are a neuromuscular responder to stress. In short, certain muscle groups have probably been engaged all night before the race. I would suggest that you do a long relaxed stretching routine before you go to bed each night, and really tune into relaxing those areas prone to tension. The worst area is the jaw, or massater muscle. Remember it takes electrochemical energy to cause a muscle to contract, and if you are a clencher, your jaw and any other tense muscle group is draining your reserves. Keep it loose, and make sure you hydrate properly.

When I hear you say, “I fear I don’t belong….” I wonder what kind of internal messages you must be giving yourself to think that, especially if you train well with your racing buddies. You have just as much opportunity to test yourself and your capabilities as anyone else racing in your category. Racing is intended to be fun, and yet you are making it out in your mind like it’s a root canal. Try next week’s crits with a different mindset. This time your goal is to have as much fun racing as you can have. Forget about placing, time, or anything else. Make it your focus to have fun and let’­s see what happens.

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Dr. Kristen Dieffenbach is a certified sport psychology consultant and the president of Mountains, Marathons, and More , a performance excellence consulting company. She works with coaches and athletes of all levels. Kristen also teaches at Frostburg State University, is a member of the USA Cycling coaching education board, and coaches with Peaks Coaching Group.

Dr. Stephen Walker is a therapist, coach, athletic & personal performance consultant who for 31 years has researched and taught applied mental conditioning skills designed for optimum performance. His Ph.D. research brought together the fields of psychology, exercise physiology, & biofeedback contributing to our knowledge of applied stress management. As a consultant from the Human Performance Laboratory of the University of Colorado, and now with Sport Performance Associates, Dr. Walker has interviewed world-record holders, consulted with All-American collegiate athletes, Olympians and professionals in varying sports.

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