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Nerves are Natural, but You Can Race Without Fear. Here’s How.

Taking risks can actually help manage your race-day anxiety. What do you have to lose?

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Those moments before the gun goes off; our hearts racing, palms sweating, adrenaline coursing through our veins. This feeling is natural when we sign up to challenge the body and the mind. But it’s important to differentiate between the typical race day jitters and the excess anxiety and fear that only holds us back.

I’ll never forget my first road races after college track. I wasn’t telling a soul that I was racing. I signed up, wrote my own training plan, executed hard workouts before work, and then when race day came around I followed my race routine and felt excited and ready to run fast. Unlike racing in college, I gave myself full permission to take chances without the fear of failing. Heck, if I failed, I’d be the only one to know. My goal? To beat my local competitor, a U.K. Olympian. When the pace got hard at mile three, I decided to take the risk and match her moves. That day I pulled away from her with a mile to go and never looked back. It was the best feeling, racing without fear. It made me wonder why I hadn’t dialed in this fearless racing formula earlier on.

How to Not be Nervous Before a Race

I’ve developed four ways to run with courage, even when race-day nerves are high. Checking these off during your training will help you feel empowered when you step to the starting line.

Create Race Goals

Whether you’re working with a coach or training on your own, come up with a race-day strategy and set an A Goal, B Goal, and C Goal. Your A Goal should be your big scary goal; the one that results from taking a big risk. Your B Goal should be a strong second; if it’s not your A-day and you can’t execute your risk, you still aim for a strong performance. Your C Goal could be as simple as completing the race. The C Goal serves as a reminder that it’s OK to not always have a perfect, A-Goal day.

RELATED: Overcome Your Pre-Race Jitters to Run a Faster 5K

Write Down Your “Why”

Remember why you are running and racing. It’s different for everyone, but at the core for most is that running is something we get to do, rarely something we have to do. Sometimes a simple check-in with your “why” is enough to move our fear from the driver’s seat to the back seat, allowing us to not be nervous before a race. 

RELATED: What Does “Being a Runner” Mean to You?

Dial in Your Race-Day Routine

Creating a rock-solid routine can help ease excess anxiety. A week before racing, write down what time you’ll wake up on race morning, what you’ll have for pre-race nutrition and hydration, what you’ll wear, and when you’ll warm up and do strides before the gun goes off. A routine helps us to set our intention and simultaneously creates a sense of calm and confidence.

Give Yourself Permission to Take a Risk

Failure at its worst is failing to try at all. When we ditch the fear of failure, we give ourselves permission to try hard things and surprise ourselves with success. Sure, we might have lower margins of error in some races, but identify the races where you can take a risk. Don’t hold back and see what happens. The experience will only allow you to grow in your running.

RELATED: Don’t Think—And Other Science-Backed Tricks to Talking Yourself into a PR


Heather Stephens competed for Syracuse University and began her coaching career at Georgetown University. She’s now a private coach for Rad Running, based in Seattle.