Controlling Pre-Race Nerves

Life in the Jungle

We’ve all experienced nerves before. Even those who haven’t done a triathlon yet will still be able to recall having to stand up in front of the class to make a speech, hands shaking so bad you can’t make out the scrawl on your palm cards. Or approaching the one street you have to take to get home on your weekly long run that has the nesting magpie that seemingly channels the ire of Satan. Nerves typically aren’t a positive experience. They are often seen as the worst part of triathlon racing and have been charged as the culprit for many an athlete’s inability to deliver a performance they are capable of on race day for the countless ways they can affect athletes’ physicality and mentality. I believe they can be an unidentified catalyst for chain reactions that bring down even the most well-devised plans of some of the most experienced athletes. But nerves need not be the devil, to be avoided and battled. Nerves can be the edge we need to achieve our goals and feel great doing it.

Let’s try a little bit of visualisation. Firstly, making sure you’re comfortable, close your eyes and just breath. Then slowly take yourself back to the last significant event that happened in your life, whether it be a triathlon, some other sporting event, your wedding day or your last holiday when you were talked into bungee jumping. Keeping your eyes closed, allow the scene to materialise around you – the sights, sounds, smells and sensation in the moments before the event began. Try to stay with the vision right up until it begins. The horn sounding, the “I do’s” are said, or the leap off the platform is made…

If your imagination is working, and you were able to successfully recreate a vivid version of your big event in your mind’s eye you’re probably feeling a little bit different to when you began reading this column. Your heart rate might have risen, breathing a bit heavier or quicker, sweating even though the room temperature hasn’t changed or just feeling more awake and ready than you were a few minutes ago. If you are feeling any of these symptoms, I have good news: your imagination and memory are functioning well, and you’re human! You have activated your sympathetic nervous system, and it appears to be in working condition. I should mention, shutting it back down may take a little bit longer than activating. Going for a run might help.

Some of the best advice I was ever given was that nerves are just our body’s way to prepare for something extraordinary. The sympathetic nervous system is more commonly known as the ‘flight or fight’ response. It’s a primitive function of our body that, in a way, gives us super powers. Not in the leap-tall-buildings-in-a-single-bound type way but more a lion-jumps-out-of-bushes-I-need-to-drop-a-sub-3-minute-kilometre sort of way. The response alters our body so that we are more physically able for a short period of time. Senses are heightened, more blood is pumped to muscles, and more oxygen is taken into the lungs. When we get nervous leading into a race, we are aware there is an event that is important to us approaching. The cave person in us interprets this a potentially life or death scenario and raises the risk alert to DEFCON four. It’s an unsophisticated system (as demonstrated by the fact we can stimulate it using our imagination) but it needs to be simple to work as fast as it does.

The thing is we are racing a triathlon for between one to sixteen hours and not bolting through the scrub under the pursuit of the king of the jungle. We probably should try to minimise or completely neutralise nerves, right? This is where I disagree. For one, after years of racing everything from local club events to the biggest dance in sport, it’s my opinion that nerves are inevitable. Bar experimental frontal lobotomy procedures, if an event means something special to you, then the nerves will happen. It’s how we’re built, and it is part of what makes those events special. The other thing I’ve learnt over the years, however, is that we do have the control to influence our nerves and channel the energy they provide. Due to the nature of nerves, they can often cause us to become more alert and observant. This can often lead to miss directed scrutiny that can feed doubts or negative thoughts: aspects of our training that we didn’t do enough of, equipment that others have that we do not, or a tight muscle that just appeared during the taper period (a classic short course triathlon ailment). Rather than using this heightened awareness to focus on the aspects we are lacking it is possible to bring attention to the qualities that are possessed in the race armoury and will provide the firepower to achieve the desired outcomes on race day. The trick here is having the means to bring these qualities to your attention.

Nerves can be the edge we need to achieve our goals and feel great doing it.A training diary (online or in writing) is a great way to retrospectively revisit the work that’s been done, particularly if comments are added that illustrate the progression of form and any breakthroughs that, at the time, indicated to you were on track towards your target. Another method of optimising nervous energy is by speaking with those who know you well and obtaining objective evidence of your potential. Coaches, training partners, family members and possibly even competitors who you have a mutual respect with. These are reliable perspectives who aren’t tainted by the skewed vision of nerves (or at least not as heavily affected as you).

In the end, your event may or may not be the equivalent of outrunning a lion to you. The nerves you feel will be a product of the importance you place on the event or training session. Some people relish the thrill; others will have a quiet spew in the bushes. Normally quiet door mice will chatter incessantly, and extroverts will fall silent, vision blinkers on.

Everyone will create, feel and react to nerves differently and in their own way but we do own them, and we can use them to our advantage. And if all else fails, remind yourself, “it’s just a race”.


Brendan Sexton

As a youngster, Brendan’s life ambition was to be the fifth Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. That didn’t quite pan out. But triathlon did. A decade on, he’s still at it.
Follow Brendan
Twitter: @kung_fu_sexton

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