Calm the Jitters Before Your Next Race

by Will Murray & Stephen Walker

Pre-race jitters bother almost everybody.  For some athletes, the jitters are so bad that they withdraw from some races or decide to give up racing altogether.  For others, those nervous feelings impair their ability to perform.

One professional triathlete, an 11-time Ironman finisher, got so nervous before his races that he would throw up.  Vomiting before the race negatively impacted his fueling plan for the 10 hours of endurance that lay before him.  Maybe that’s an extreme example, but that awful, butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling plagues just about every athlete, and it’s not a pleasant sensation.

First, we are going to take apart the origins of that feeling, we’re calling it the jitters, and second, we will offer some specific techniques for managing the jitters.

What is the Value of Getting All Nervous Before a Race?

On the one hand, a slightly keyed-up feeling tells you that you are ready and focused on the right thing—the race.  If you didn’t feel a little antsy, you might wonder if you were really ready or paying attention to the right things.

On the other hand, ejecting your breakfast—the breakfast you need to fuel your race—isn’t really helping.  Neither is feeling so terrible before the race that you decide not to race at all.  So what causes these dreaded jitters?

Two major forces work away in your mind when you get nervous about your upcoming performance.  And the cause of your jitters is entirely in your head.  There is no physical pain or other discomfort going on to make you nervous.  The jitters are 100% in your mind.

Certainly, anticipation of pain is part of the jitters.  Also, fear of disappointment is part of the mix.  Those two mental processes, fear of pain and fear of disappointment, add up to the jitters.

On the one hand, a slightly keyed-up feeling tells you that you are ready and focused on the right thing—the race.  If you didn’t feel a little antsy, you might wonder if you were really ready or paying attention to the right things.

Anticipation of Pain – a Minor Factor

Everybody knows that racing endurance sports creates at least a little discomfort.  Muscle fatigue, air hunger, blisters, chafing, heat, cold, thirst, hunger, muscle cramps— these forms of pain are no stranger you to as an endurance athlete. You train with them and endure them in preparation for the races, which, by the way, you enter voluntarily.  You sign up for this cocktail of unpleasant sensations when you go out to run or ride or swim or ski.

Before a race, you might conjure up mental images of how much this race is going to hurt.  But a part of you already knows that it’s going to be uncomfortable.  It’s a race.  You are trying to stretch your abilities, test your limits and go hard.

Some philosophers differentiate between pain and suffering[i].  Pain is physical discomfort that you are feeling right now at the present time.  Pain is largely neurological.  Suffering is different.  It’s the memory of past pain, or the anticipation of pain to come or both.  Suffering is purely and 100% mental.  You can manage pain by focusing on other thoughts, changing your pace, “breathing into it” or taking analgesics.  You manage suffering by getting your mind in order.

Virtually every coach and athlete has an understanding of pain. Some, however, define pain solely as the result of an injury, while everything else is suffering.  In endurance sports this can be a concern, so knowing where the pain is coming from, assessing it and discerning the source can be important.  Pain that is injury-related might include overuse injuries, tendonitis, or a sprain or a strain affecting a joint.  Please take a short detour here and review Dr. Eddie O’Connor’s guidelines for determining the nature of your pain and how to address it (Podium April 2010).

Now that we have a better understanding of pain – we need to realize that suffering is completely in your mind.  Completely.  When you remember past pain, you can turn it to your advantage by recalling workouts that were truly harder than the race you are about to race.  Those harder-than-races workouts are entries into your mental database that let you—in all truth—tell yourself that you’ve been through worse and survived.  Applied to the anticipation of the pain to come, the memory of past pain isn’t so bad and helps place proper perspective and dimensions on the pain you anticipate.  If you’ve survived worse, the upcoming event just can’t be that bad.  As long as you aren’t risking injury, such as tendonopathy, heat stroke or stress fracture (a different kind of pain), you know what you are in for and can manage it.

And remember, you are doing this voluntarily.  You signed up for this race, trained for this race, and paid (maybe even a lot of money) to be in this race.  Refocus from the suffering toward the reason you signed up and the benefits you expected to get.  Run a short, color, panoramic video of the race you hope for and planned to have.


Fear of Disappointment – a Larger Factor

Everybody knows that the race is going to be hard physically.  Performing at the limits, going faster than you think you can, all that kind of thing you already understand.  Hidden underneath the fear of pain is the fear of proving to be a disappointment to somebody.

Think of your next race and ask yourself this question, then wait for a response as though a part of you could answer.  “If I don’t do well in this race, who will be disappointed?”

When you get the response, you may experience a mild shock of surprise.  For almost everybody, one of the people who will be disappointed is their own selves.  Of course.  You registered for this race fired with optimism and visions of wonderful achievement. You trained for it, felt pain for it, and maybe even set goals of the time or place in the results that you wanted.  If you don’t have your day or can’t hold the pace, or even if you cave in, you yourself will indeed be disappointed.

There may also be another person who you fear disappointing.  That person could be a spouse or a coach (present or even from the very deep, sepia-toned past) or a parent or another family member.  Almost always, this other person is someone who you know has your best interest at heart and sincerely wants you to perform well.  Who wouldn’t want to avoid disappointing that person?  Yet, fear of disappointing her leads to bad jitters which leads to bad racing.

Never fear.  Once you become aware that you fear disappointing someone you cares for you, you can manage that fear and knock down the jitters.

Start by asking yourself, “How would this person really feel if she knew how nervous I am about disappointing her?” Then wait for the response.  Most of the time, someone who really cares for you believes in you no matter what and doesn’t want you to suffer because you might disappoint her.  She’s on your side and she doesn’t want you to worry about disappointing her. She just wants you to go out and have a good time.

Next, close your eyes to see where in your visual field you see that person.  With your eyes still closed, call out to her so that she looks right at you, then point to where you see her face.  Open your eyes and notice the elevation of your arm with respect to the horizon.  For those we admire, we place them in our visual field above the level horizon.  We put people on a pedestal.  We look up to people.  We hold them up in high regard.  We do all this quite literally in our mind’s eye.

Alternatively, for those we don’t like, or trust, or whose values we don’t share, we see them in our mind’s eye below level.  We look down on them.  Literally.[ii]

To quell the disappointment jitters, close your eyes again, call out to the person you don’t want to disappoint, and then lower her image right down to level horizon.  Now open your eyes and notice how you can focus on her real feelings for you.  She wants you to have a good time, above all, and she is with you all the way.  Now that you’ve brought her to your level, taken her off the pedestal, you can focus on your race.

After the race, you can always put her back up where you had her if you like.


 Dispense with the Jitters – Here’s How……….

Now that you have addressed your anticipation of pain and also removed the fear of disappointment, you can use these simple techniques to feel all the readiness without the nasty jangling jitters.

See yourself succeed.  Take charge of your mental state by finding a quiet place and visualizing yourself running the race as planned. Imagine your start and how you want to feel at important landmarks. Many athletes listen to music while “visualizing success”.  This strategy can really help in big races.  Notice the music you like to listen to, pick out those that inspire you, pump you up, relax you, or give you the kind of message you crave.  Kristen Fryburg-Zaitz, qualifier for the USA Olympic Marathon trials, likes to listen to “It’s Your Song” by Garth Brooks. “I’ve listened to it since high school and it makes me think back to my coach telling me how much he believes in me,” she said.


Center yourself.  A go-to nerve soother of pros is the “Centering Breath.”(Podium 4/2007)  First, relax your muscles. Let go of tension in your face, unclench your teeth and release your shoulders so they’re loose — not tensed up to your earlobes. Shake out your muscles a little and you can literally shake the tension out of your body.  Inhale a long, slow, deep breath and then exhale it in a long sigh. Tune in to the sensation of the breath cascading down your torso and out. It should feel like a release of all tension. Take a moment and embrace the pause before the next inhale. Centering breaths trigger a parasympathetic calming response in the nervous system that can take the edge off your nerves.


Talk nice.  As you line up on the start line, monitor your self-talk. Remind yourself why you’re racing.  Focus on a positive expectation like ‘I’m here to have fun.’  If you find yourself fixating on negative thoughts, replace them with positive messages you’ve created ahead of time. These are called “proxy thoughts” and they can be worked on during rest periods, especially after a successful training session.  The key is to write them down so you will remember them.  It can be really helpful to have them on a wristband for race day. If you worry your legs might feel heavy or tense, give yourself a proxy thought like “I’m light and relaxed.” Keep your mind in the now and focus on the process — not the outcome.

Have confidence in what you did to get here now. Remind yourself of your preparations. You’re ready.  Now it’s time to put a smile on your face and favor that part of you who enjoys the challenge.  You can do it.

[i] Dupre, Ben.  (2009).  50 Philosophy Ideas You Really Need to Know.  Quercus, London.

[ii] Derks, Lucas. (2005)  Social Panoramas. Changing the Unconscious Landscape with NLP and Psychotherapy.  Crown House Publishing, Norwalk, CT.

Will Murray is a three-time Ironman finisher, a certified NLP Practitioner and has coached more than 100 endurance athletes on mental training.  Will is also an experienced mountaineer, having climbed all 68 14,000 peaks in the continental United States in addition to having reached the summit of Island Peak (20,300’), Lobuche East (20,078’) and seven peaks 18,000 feet and above in Nepal, Citlaltapaltel (18,400’) in Mexico and Batian on Mt. Kenya (17,058).  His most recent project is as the author of Uncle! The Definitive Guide for Becoming the World’s Greatest Aunt or Uncle (Morgan James Publishing, 2011).


15 thoughts on “Calm the Jitters Before Your Next Race

  • September 8, 2011 at 6:15 pm

    Great article and good timing! I’m sitting in the airport biting off all of my fingernails… about to embark on one of the biggest physical challenges I’ve attempted to date! I’ll try to incorporate some of these techniques.

  • September 17, 2011 at 6:08 am

    Perfect article. I am new to the triathlon world and 9 days away from my first 70.3. Trying to keep calm(ish). I also find that being tired makes my mind go crazy.

    • September 17, 2011 at 2:04 pm

      glad it was helpful Deb – a good controlled breathing pattern during stretching, warm-up, etc. really makes a difference – and – practice (a lot of it) enables you to call it up on demand. good luck, we’re rooting for you:-)

  • February 24, 2012 at 6:29 pm

    I am a soccer goalie and this really helped me even though I don’t race.

    • February 28, 2012 at 6:52 pm

      Thanks Jordan,
      The idea that we can practice and train ourselves to use breathing and self-talk to alter our arousal level before a challenge is important and a key mental conditioning skill. Glad it was helpful.

  • January 2, 2013 at 12:56 am

    The fear of throwing up before my races is what made me quit track after my freshman year of highschool. I plan to return to track as a junior now, but I’m still nervous about being nervous! I have thrown up before my races, and I’m hoping this year will be different and calmer. Thanks for the tips!

    • January 4, 2013 at 12:50 am

      Hi Jessie,
      Thanks for sharing. Its not that unusual, but it can really wreck your blood sugar base before a big race. When you think about it, some people feel sick – some tired – some excited and can’t wait – but everyone is amped up. Your goal? To develop the skill to focus on just those things that help you feel fun and excited before you tow the line vs. those things that scare you so you want to throw up. Check out the article on “Controlling Arousal – The Centering Breath”. Practice that about 200 centering breaths per/day until you can feel the difference, and you mind and body are synched up in the NOW MOMENT. Let me know how this works for you.

  • May 15, 2013 at 8:32 pm

    I will apply all of the techniques I read here next Saturday, I’m running a Super Spartan Race in Mexico and have been training for more than 6 months, but the fear of disappointing myself and my late grandfather just wont go away, let’s see how it goes Saturday morning.

    Thank you!

    • November 7, 2013 at 3:03 pm

      I’m 56 years old and doing Tough Mudder for the secound time, am nervous about doing it this time, I no what to exept but can’t shake the nervous stomach 3 days before the race. Advise?

      • November 8, 2013 at 6:18 pm

        Break the race up into segments…at least 3 so you can prepare specifically for some of the challenges you will face. Do enough reps with that challenge to have a mind/body physical routine down for execution. Each one merits 15 minutes of specific training. Secondly, muscle tension is not your friend….so make sure you’re shaking your muscles out and stretching throughout. Muscle tension is what zaps most your strength and unfortunately alot of it has not utilitarian value at all. So let your mantra be: ….be here now…relax into this….keep stretched and loose as much as possible. Finally, do it with a training partner so you can enjoy the party along the way. It will help keep you loose. If you’re on your own….make a friend. Heck, most folks are out there because they wanted a challenge just like you. Be friends as competitors, smile, engage – everyone (especially you) will have more fun for it:)
        best, Doc


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