Nervous? Who Me?
by Fatima Ahmad
Everyone gets nervous before races. “If you’re not nervous, you’re not excited,” says U.S. 5,000m Olympian Brad Hauser. But poorly managed pre-race anxiety can undo months of training by misdirecting your energies away from the task at hand–racing your best. Case in point–Hauser’s fifth-place finish in the 10,000m trials. “I made a rookie mistake,” admits Hauser. “I was too excited. When the running got hard I was too focused on the result, on making the team.”
Nick Rogers, who finished third in the 5,000m after a DNF at 10K, admits, “Anxiety is the reason I didn’t make the 10k team. I knew I was one of the top contenders and I just let the pressure get to me. I didn’t have fun. For me, anxiety can make me almost focus too much on the race.”
That’s no good, says sport psychologist Andy Palmer, Ph.D. Instead, Palmer, a former 2:16 marathoner, urges runners to practice “detached awareness.” “You must be truly able to ‘let go,’ to suspend judgment of your efforts,” he says–no matter how important to you that outcome is. “The race should be the most important thing in your life while it’s happening, yet you can’t care how it turns out.” This mindset takes practice. Palmer recommends meditation, deep breathing and progressive relaxation (consciously tensing, then relaxing, one muscle group at a time) to develop a state of mind that embodies an intense desire to succeed, yet allows you to detach from this desire at the crucial moment.
Another strategy for defusing anxiety is pinpointing and accepting, your fears. Regina Jacobs, who won both the 1500 and 5,000 meters at the Trials, says she was helped by acknowledging that rival Suzy Favor Hamilton could beat her. “It made me a lot more relaxed,” she says. “It’s like when I ran my 1,000-meter American record, I accepted that I might not make the record, and that it would be OK.”
Through mindful practice, you too can tame the pre-race anxiety demons. Experiment, paying attention to what works for you: Gabe Jennings relaxed before winning the 1500m final with a jog by the river, where he tuned into the water, the trees, and how the light played on the leaves. Before the 5,000m final, Rogers just reminded himself to smile. “As silly as it may sound,” he says, “when you have a smile on your face you can be more relaxed and run faster.”