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

Five common mistakes runners make due to the jitters—and practical advice for combating them.

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So you want to run a fast 5K. But you’re not sure how to train for it—or, once trained, how to execute the perfect race.

Relax. You’re not alone. Every year, between nine and ten million Americans run a 5K race. Some are happy just to finish. But others, like you, want more.

You want to run faster. Faster than you’ve run recently, faster than you have in your current age group, or maybe faster than ever before.

There’s a Bateke proverb that goes like this: “The river swells with the contribution of the small streams.” You’ll need to create your own “river” by embracing a wide variety of key practices. That’s because the 5K is a unique race that pairs the speed of a miler with the endurance of a marathoner. Only a multifaceted approach—one that targets both speed and endurance fitness—will yield your faster 5K.

Sound like a lot to put on your plate?

Again, relax. Training for a faster 5K has more to do with variety, fun, and self-confidence than it does with pain, discipline, and sacrifice. The trick is making sure that your training and lifestyle adjustments provide the keys for unlocking your 5K potential.

Beat the Jitters

We all get nervous on race day. That’s expected.

“Any runner who denies having fears, nerves, or some other kind of disposition,” said 1950s British Olympian Gordon Pirie, “is a bad athlete, or a liar.”

But for some runners, race jitters (an irrational panic in the buildup to a race) aren’t limited to race day. For some, jitters can infect the final weeks before the race. They can lead to unforced errors that upend months of smart training. What makes jitters especially destructive is that runners don’t always recognize them, even when they’re shaking in their shoes.

Here then, are five common mistakes runners make due to the jitters—along with practical advice for combating them.

1. Spontaneous Injury

As race day approaches, you suddenly become aware of some acute pain or injury. Your Achilles hurts. Or your back is tight. Or you’ve got a pain in your hip that you’re certain must be a stress fracture. Are you really injured? Yes, you are. Then again, you’re always slightly injured. Hard training leads to minor aches and pains. Normally, runners shrug these off—until race anxiety amplifies them in our minds. Don’t worry. Once the race starts, you’ll forget all about these phantom injuries.

2. Second-Guessing Syndrome

It’s the week of your race, and the realization hits: “Everything I’ve done to prepare for this race is wrong!” You decide you should have done more distance. Or speed. Or tempo. Or drills. You wonder if you should do a crash course in whatever’s lacking. Don’t. Instead, relax. There’s nothing you can do in a week to get faster. At the same time, there’s a lot you can do to sabotage your race. Run the race you have in you, then assess afterward whether your training needs a tweak.

3. Workout Warrior

The race is almost upon you, but you simply can’t wait the few remaining days to test your fitness. The solution is clear: Run an all-out time trial or a monster workout . . . No. Just no. Testing your race readiness won’t improve your fitness, but it will break down muscle, deplete muscle glycogen, and exhaust your nervous system, leaving you with dead legs on race day. Don’t waste your fitness on a workout.

4. Routine Changes

Some runners change their routine in advance of a race. They think more rest and less exertion will make them a faster runner. So they skip chores. Avoid normal outings. Get more couch time. But operating outside your normal routine only increases anxiety. Instead, stay in your comfort zone. Go to work. Take out the garbage. Eat normally. As über-coach Jack Daniels says, “Most great performances come when you’re not trying to do it. When you try to do something special, it usually backfires.”

5. Training Through the Race

Sometimes runners decide the best way to deal with race anxiety—about their fitness, training, and race readiness—is to treat the race like a workout. “I don’t have to worry about my performance,” the thinking goes, “because I’m just training through the race.” Don’t do this. A race is a 100% effort no matter how you approach it. You need a modest taper prior to race day and a short period of recovery afterward. Otherwise, you risk overloading your body with an effort it can’t handle.

race week checklist dos and don'ts

If there’s a common theme to all these jitters, it’s this: A lack of confidence in your race-readiness can lead to mistakes that sabotage your race. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead, trust your training. If the race doesn’t go as planned, give yourself a post-race assessment.

Adapted from Fast 5K: 25 Crucial Keys and 4 Training Plans by Pete Magill with permission of VeloPress.