Freaking Out Before a Big Race
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This article is targeted at anyone that has ever “freaked out” before a big race. And I’m guessing this applies to almost all of you because the central component of a freak out occurs when you’re attempting to do something you’ve never done before. It doesn’t necessarily matter whether the race is a 5k, or 10k, or 13.1, or 26.2, or triathlon, or Ironman. Usually, though, the longer the race, the bigger the freak out.
Below is a excerpt from an email I sent to my athletes before Ironman Wisconsin in 2010. Almost all the points are transferable between various types of races and distances. I hope you find it useful...
“I’m receiving a lot of comments/questions/thoughts about current training and IMWI. And the tone is different than what it’s been in the past couple of months. It’s probably the enormity of realizing your 140.6 is only one month away and also the accumulated level of fatigue you’ve got from months of training. I’ll address the former, first:
You are all in great PHYSICAL shape for the race. And I don’t say this because I’m trying to blow sunshine up your a+s – I say it because I honestly believe it. You’ve put in the necessary time and miles. But you need to understand and realize this – there is a larger mental component to racing that people acknowledge, or realize, and the longer the race, the more mental it becomes. For Ironman, you can barely even call it a race. It is a survival-fest.
Anxiety comes from the fact that, whatever distance race you’re doing, you almost never replicate the race in training (nor should you). For a 13.1 your longest run may be 10 or 11 miles. For a marathon your longest run is probably 20 or 21 miles. And for triathlons, the bulk of your training is spent isolating the specific events of swimming, biking and running. Don’t let this distract you or diminish your confidence.
Still, some people let this anxiety get the best of them, and this is why you’ll see Ironman amateurs and uninformed novices do 100 mile bikes and 20 mile runs as brick workouts. The risk/reward of putting your body through that in training makes little sense because you can only prepare your body, physically, to a certain point. The rest is all mental. So when an Ironman athlete gets off the bike after a 100 mile ride questioning how they’re going to run a marathon afterwards, remember that the power of the human mind is incredible and it will tell your body to do whatever you want it to do. The reason they question whether they can run a marathon after a mile 100 bike is because they don’t have to run a marathon after your 100 mile bike – on that day. But on race day you know exactly what you have to do. There are no ands, ifs, or buts. It’s all laid out in front of you and you’ll be riding the 112 knowing that you have to run afterwards. Trust me, this psychological shift in perception is the singular key to preparation and subsequent success. Other races are the exact same - you know what you need to do, it is just a matter of doing it.
Second, don’t discount how much having a tired body can mess with your mind. This happens to athletes on all levels. I’ve had these thoughts starting out about half of my bikes lately:
"How in the heck am I going to do x:xx:xx on the bike at IMWI? I’m two miles into my ride and I’m spinning in the little ring at 17mph, on the greenway, and my legs are already tired. And they hurt. And they burn. And they ache. And I’m hungry. Who am I kidding?”
Don’t let the dog days of training get you down. The volume of working out can often be a rude awakening to your body and adding some intensity on top of that doesn’t help matters either. You never feel fresh. And even when you think you’re fresh, you’re not. What you really are is less fatigued (and there’s a BIG difference). You probably won’t truly be fresh until the beginning of September and to get there you’ll have to survive the psychological challenges of tapering. My advice is twofold – 1) get through the workouts and, as my mother always said, just do your best. Even if you’re feeling tired, know that it will subside and get better. Anybody can have great workouts when they’re feeling good – it takes no talent. But the great ones hit their workouts because they’re mentally strong and get it done when they’re not feeling their best. When you’re tired, visualize how good you’re going to feel finishing the race with a thousand people, including family and friends, screaming just for YOU. 2) Focus on your recovery and whatever you can do to feel “less fatigued.” Sleep as much as you can, always have a water bottle by your side, be buddies with your foam roller, treat yourself to massages, eat lot of “natural” foods like fruits and veggies, take ice baths, stretch when you get done with workouts, and when it is time to relax – relax! Try to unwind as best you can. Avoid any unnecessary stress.
One other side note on this but worth mentioning – I’ve had a couple friends be nice enough 2B honest with me and not enable my self-pitying behavior. Usually it happens when we’re sitting around and I’m complaining about how tired I am, how badly my legs hurt, or how long I had to train that day. They throw it back in my face and say “You’re choosing to do this, aren’t you?” And yes, I am. No one is holding a gun to my head. Don’t get me wrong, my friends are very supportive, but they keep me in check as well. And remembering that I’m training for a race by choice helps me to maintain more of a “suck it up” attitude and get done what needs 2B done. And for as bad as it hurts and as tired as you may be now, you’ll miss it – I guarantee it. You’ll look back on these as the best of times.”
All the best and continued good luck. Keep the freaking out to a minimum!
Scott Welle, MS, PES, CSCS, ITCA, PFT
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