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Coaches Blog

Reduce Pre-Race Anxiety with Planning and Routine

Updated: Feb 13, 2020

by Mandi Kowal

Today was one of those days I live for, coaching my youth triathlon team at a RipRoar Event. Seeing kids navigate through the morning is something special. Watching them race is so moving and anyone who has come to watch gets drawn in like any other spectator there. Whether they’re on training wheels or a fast road bike, their energy and grittiness is a blast to watch.

The pre-race atmosphere is electric. The music is pumping as hundreds of kids are setting up their transition and getting body marked. They’re smiling and working hard to get ready. Soon they are heading over to the swim start and if you look closer you can start to see some of the hesitation and nervousness set in. This particularly happens as they line up for the swim, something I have witnessed at adult triathlons.

Today as I watched, while trying to support my own daughter, this part of the event seemed a bit more pronounced than previous races. Some kids had that deer in the headlights look, some were talking nonstop, some were opening and closing lockers, some were worrying about the course, some shared their ‘supposed’ disdain for the sport, some wanted to go hide in their family vehicles, and some were crying. After reading that you’re probably wondering why I would enjoy such an event. Well, I've watched enough of these races to know that as soon as they start they become focused on the task ahead. However, today, it was clear that more work needed to be done to help them manage this prerace anxiety.

I started to brainstorm ways to help athletes feel calmer race morning. Heck, I know how I have felt before races and I have developed a strategy over many years to effectively manage those pre-race jitters. It entails establishing a routine that minimizes wasted energy, quiets my mind, and allow me to focus on the event itself.

This routine expends to pre-race responsibilities. There is so much to tend to and think about that it’s easy to forget something. I’d like to share some tools that have worked for me and others with a few notes on how they might be adapted for children and youth in the sport.

The Binder

I start by assembling information into a binder (top photo) including any applicable race information that I need. Mine includes a packing list, hotel information, airline and car rental details, course maps, event specific information (rules, schedule), notes from other races I have found helpful and my personal pre-race schedule. The longer the event, the farther in advance I start putting it together. If it’s a sprint then it might be a few days ahead. My Binder has become my “secret weapon” to minimize pre-race stressors -- which frees up energy to put into my race.

Below is an example of a general packing list that might be included:

I usually start by putting in the course maps first and then print out the important pages from the “Athlete guide” or website that I want to look over. I like to start studying the course maps, especially the bike course, as soon as possible. This also allows me to visualize my approach during some of my longer workouts. I have found that when you know the course it seems to fly by much more quickly.

At Home Pre-race Schedule

This schedule is the list of tasks I need to complete before I head out of town. These can take more time than we think, so start early to avoid needless stress and pressure. Here's a look at a basic schedule and things to consider while getting prepped for the race.

A Month or More Prior:

This is for long distance races like Ironman and Half Ironman as well as races you are traveling far to attend. I put together an Excel sheet that includes

  • My specific schedule & tasks to do (like study race map)

  • Packing list (see below my Ironman prep list) ** Note: I will be making 3 x 5 laminated cards for my youth team

  • List of Questions

  • Race Strategy – yes plan now – this is what you can control

This is a snapshot of my Ironman list for each area. I print it, cut it and pin/tape to the appropriate bag.

Two Weeks Prior:

  • Get your bike serviced!

  • Schedule a massage to take place the week of your race (but not the day before).

  • Start to think about all those breakthrough workouts that got you to this point. You have won already so remember that.

  • Start gathering items for your special needs bags (Ironman only). Purchase any last minute items.

  • Double check your accommodation and travel reservations

  • Set up bike transport (I found better than hauling my bike through the airport. It's fast, efficient and affordable.)

The Week Prior:

  • If you haven’t, get your bike serviced!!! If life gets in the way, there are usually mechanics at the venue (not always for short course racing) but planning ahead saves you time and energy. Take it from me. I learned the hard way.

  • Double check that list again.

  • Label and load all bags, especially for Ironman. I personally don’t need a lot in my special needs bags so I use zip lock bags. The key is to load them BEFORE you leave home.

  • If you plan to arrive late to your hotel call them and let them know so they don’t give your room away. It’s happened. ☹

  • Drive the bike course especially if it’s an Ironman and you haven’t seen it yet. I like to take notes on my course map that’s in The Binder. I mark all tricky parts or areas I need to be aware of for race day. Of course, I pull over to do this. ☺

  • Look for places to eat if you are traveling or make sure you have what you need at home instead of running around crazy the night before. I’ve already done that for you☺

  • Take a look at all the work you have done to this point to get ready. Review your training logs to see how many hours you swam, biked and ran to prepare. I bet it's impressive and a definitely a boost for your confidence..

Day prior to the race:

  • Drive the course if you haven’t seen it yet and adjust race strategy if needed. I find it very motivating.

  • Double check your pre-race day morning schedule and make adjustments

  • Hand in your bike earlier rather than later so you can get your feet up and relax

Race Day:

  • Utilize your check list including wake up routine, transition set up, course “to do list,” and warm up routine. I have no issues referring to this and crossing it off. As a matter of fact, in my last event I completed my Half Ironman transition set up in less than 5 min.

  • Complete your pre-race routine that you have been practicing.

  • ** Note: I will be making another 3 x 5 laminated card for my youth team. It will include a photo of how they set up transition, remind them to check their brakes making sure they are not rubbing, check tire pressure, and include the team motto. I could tell today that when the kids were actually doing the setup it helped to eliminate stress and provide them something to do.

Here’s a sample of an old schedule I wrote out in my hotel before a race. So it’s nothing fancy but writing this out quieted my mind.

Waiting for the Race to Start:

Transition is set so now the waiting game. Here are a few things I like to do:

  • Listen to music

  • Find a place to just relax

  • Warm up

  • Step away from those who are stressed or talking negatively

  • Visualize important strategies for the swim

  • Joke around with friends

  • Remind myself that yes it’s hard and you can do hard things.

Remember that the best way to put yourself in the driver's seat is by being prepared and controlling those things you can control. It will give you confidence, minimize stress and in the long run quiet the mind. I’ve been teased for my system before and sometimes complimented. The bottom line is, find what works for you. Ask yourself, what quiets your mind?

I will never forget waiting to race at Worlds with my boat mates in 1986, two of us were listening to music, one was reading and one was knitting. We had unwavering faith in each other but more importantly found a way to keep our energy in the right place You can too!

Good Luck and Rock that next race!

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