The day that I do not feel some level of emotion and anxiety before a race is the day that I hang up my tri bike and do something different, at least for a while. Pre-race emotions and anxieties are not necessarily bad things. Each one of us has an ideal state for optimal performance. The question becomes, how do we know what that state is, and how do we put ourselves in our ideal emotional and arousal state prior to an event? These are questions that will need to be answered over time through evaluation and with practice, but let’s jump into it and see if we can find a few things to help you on your way.
Getting in touch with emotions
When we look at emotions, we often start by looking at three different areas: mood, emotion, and arousal. Mood is something that is consistent over longer periods of time and is not something that we will focus on here. Emotion, on the other hand, is a feeling that occurs on a moment-by-moment basis. And arousal is a physiological state in response to our emotions and stress. Our emotions can shift quickly in response to the various stimuli in our environment. Being aware of our emotions, as well as the thoughts that we are having around each emotion, and our physiological response to the stress that we are experiencing, requires that we be present in each moment.
To start building self-awareness, think back on previous races when you performed well. The ones that had you feeling on top of your game. If you do not have any race experience then think back on other times in your life when you felt anxious and then performed well (before a public speaking appearance, a presentation to your boss, etc.). Connect with the emotions, thoughts, and feelings you were experiencing. Write these down and put language to them. Now, do the same thing for times when you performed poorly. Hopefully, you will start to identify emotions, thoughts, and feelings that you would like to either recreate or avoid. You might be surprised to see a few emotions and physiological responses that you would classify as negative being associated with performing well. Both pleasant and unpleasant emotions can influence performance-related metrics such as reaction time and force generation.
Now that you are more aware of your emotions around positive and negative performances, you can start to identify your own ideal state for performance. From here you can look at strategies to recreate these emotional states and manage the physiological reactions. This is referred to as emotional regulation and arousal regulation. Let’s start with a few tricks under the emotional regulation category.
Managing your body’s response
The first trick is to control your environment and limit unwanted stimuli. What does this look like on race day? Standing in transition listening to the worries and experiencing the emotions of all the athletes around you might not be the best thing for your own emotional regulation. Maybe you need to step away and find a quieter spot to visualize or meditate. Practicing visualization and self-talk prior to your race can help you be prepared for your pre-race experience. We train our bodies for the physiological demands of race day; why not train your mind as well? Try to recreate the pre-race experience and all the emotions and thoughts that will go with it. Practice creating thought patterns that can lead to those high-performance emotions and keep you in your ideal zone on race morning. Remember, it is not about creating a lack of emotion or suppressing emotions. That is an unrealistic goal that can come back to bite us later. Experience your emotions. Learn about them and learn how to regulate them – that is the goal.
Arousal regulation is often experienced as being more linear than emotional regulation. Our physiological response to stress is more easily measured and identified once we become more self-aware as athletes. Things like respiratory rate, heart rate, and even our muscle tension can all be felt or measured in real time. Progressive relaxation and breathing control exercises can help reduce muscle tension, lower respiratory rates, and keep our heart rate under control. We can feel and measure the effectiveness of these strategies as our muscles relax, breathing slows to a more normal rate, and our heart rate reading on our watch drops. Various mindfulness strategies, such as meditation, may also help us concentrate and self-regulate our arousal state as well as our emotions.
Practice, practice, practice!
In addition to the pre-race environment, it is a good idea to practice situations that you may encounter during your race. The more we train in event-specific ways, the better off we will be on race day. Just like this is true for aspects of training (for example, you will train on hills to prepare for a hilly race) and nutrition, it’s also true for emotional regulation. Stress responses can be reduced by putting ourselves in similar situations during training. It is often best to increase the stress over time. For example, it might not be helpful to ask ten of your friends to constantly swim over you on your first open water swim. Instead, first practice swimming next to someone, then between two people, and over time build up to practicing crowded swim start environments. Practice running in busy areas and also in solitude. Bike with a group and practice passing other cyclists.
The more you can experience or simulate a race-like environment prior to race day, the easier it will be to control your emotions when the big day is finally here. If you have simulated a flat tire during your long ride, for example, not only will you likely be quicker at changing the flat because of the practice, but your perception of that particular stressor will be easier to manage. With some self-awareness, reflection, and plenty of practice, you can put yourself in the best position to find that ideal state for optimal performance, and to handle anything that comes your way on race day.
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