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Sometimes I find myself lying in bed unable to sleep. I know I need to sleep to recover from that day’s hard work out, and so I’ll have energy for tomorrow’s, but I just can’t stop thinking about my upcoming race. I don’t think I’m the only one out there, am I? That’s the thing about World Championship season; these are the races we’ve been working towards all year long, and it means so much to us to perform at the top of our game.
So, how to cope with the stress? I’ve taken the past week to talk with some other athletes, both in the sport of OCR, as well as some friends of mine who have had the honor of competing at the Olympic games, about stress coping mechanisms for these “A” races.
1. Race Your Own Race
A mentor of me once reminded me that my job at a race isn’t to win or beat any one specific competitor. My job is just to go out and do the best that I can do. This is also my job and what my focus should be when I go out each day to train.
Do yourself a favor and stop analysing what your competition is doing on social media or Strava; unfollow them if you have to. What your competition is doing for their training doesn’t matter and isn’t necessarily what will benefit you or what you have to work on.
Every person has different strengths and weaknesses, and each person’s body reacts differently to training methods. Know what works for you, whether it be lots of speed work or lots of mileage. Analyze your weaknesses and find ways that you can iron them out through training. Just do what you have to do to be the best you can be.
2. Have Confidence in Yourself
Now that you’ve put in the work to be the best that you can be, have confidence in the work you’ve put in and give yourself a pat on the back. Rather than saying “this person is better at heavy carries than me,” remind yourself that one of your strengths is maybe running up hills, for example, and you can make up time there. One person I talked to literally wrote their strengths down on flash cards and would flip through them to inspire some self-confidence whenever they were feeling particularly nervous.
3. Have a Dress Rehearsal
Take the time to do some research on what your race course will be like. Find out as much as you can. Will the terrain be rocky trails, or dirt road? What is the elevation gain and loss? What kind of obstacles will you encounter? Then, find somewhere near you that you can simulate the race course. Bring the tools you’ll need to do so, whether that be a bucket full or rocks or a sandbag. Run up a hill, then carry a sandbag, then run some more, then simulate an obstacle. Just look at your surroundings and see what you can use. If there are fences, practice jumping them like walls. If you can successfully re-enact 60-70% of what you’ll experience during the race, you’ll be just fine come race day, and knowing you can handle it will help your nerves a lot.
4. Utilize Your Distractions
Before a big race, it’s really hard to get your mind off the big day. We tend to form obsessive habits that add to our stress levels, like analyzing what we’re eating, and our mind constantly revolves back to thinking about the race. Being this OCD, if you will, isn’t doing us any favours. In fact, it’s just wasting energy that we could be putting in to our training or recovery. Many of the races I’ve performed the best in I’ve come in to the most relaxed. Alternatively, many of the races I’ve screwed up, I’ve come in to really stressed.
Utilize your distractions. If you have hobbies like woodworking or baking, crocheting, whatever you’re in to, use it to help take your mind off the race. Go out for dinner with friends and talk about something besides the race. Laugh a little.
I also find getting away from home helps a lot. We develop these funny habits in our daily lives, and as much as home is a place of comfort, it can also be a place of anxiety. Try going on a camping trip, cottaging, or staying at a friend’s for the weekend. You’d be surprised how much getting away will help you relax.
5. Take Time to Calm Your Mind
If you’re anything like me before a big race, I have trouble falling asleep at night, and more often than not sleep poorly because I’m dreaming that I’m in the race. My heart rate is probably way higher in sleep than it would normally be, so my brain and body just can’t relax.
Before bed, take the time to help your brain shut off. It only takes ten minutes. Put your phone away and practice some meditation or breathing exercises… I know many people think this sort of thing is gimmicky, but trust me, just give it a shot. You’ll probably end up falling asleep in the middle of it, but that’s perfectly fine. Your brain has gone to sleep in a relaxed state, you won’t be dreaming you’re in a race, and you’ll get a much better sleep.
If you’ve never done meditation or mindfulness before, try downloading an app to help walk you through it, and plug some headphones in while lying in bed. There are great apps for this… one that I really like is called Headspace. You don’t need to pay for it, they have a bunch of free ten-minute trial sessions to help you get the hang of it, which you can always repeat. They say you’re supposed to do this in a sitting position, but who cares! Our goal is to help give us a relaxed sleep, so as long as my brain is shutting off I see no problem with practicing while laying down. These ten-minute sessions are great during the day too, while driving or on lunch, just to help keep you down to earth.
I hope some of these methods are helpful to you. Once you’ve figured out what coping methods work for you, don’t forget to utilize them on the start line. The start line of these “A” races is the pinnacle of nervousness, amplified by all the other nervous athletes around you. Sometimes I feel so nervous that I swear I can barely function, but doing things like having confidence in myself and my training, and reminding myself that I’m just here to race my own race, can really help.