Pre Race Stress

July 27th, 2017

I remember back in High School sleeping in before one of my major exams and completely forgetting it was on at all, and no this was not the reason I became a professional triathlete because I didn’t make that exam. I actually was so late for the exam I completely missed it, but luckily for me I was able to sit the test once I arrived at School a few hours later when everyone was leaving.

This had a few effects on my mental preparation for the test, number one I didn’t second guess myself by trying to cram in extra learning right up until a minute before like most people would usually do as I was more concerned about getting to school as quick as possible, and number two I was so relaxed and not stressed because I had given in to the fact that I had missed it all together I stopped worrying about it. These factors had a few effects on my ability to recall information that day and I had my highest score in that test compared to all my other subjects that year.

I learned a lot that day about preparation and being confident in your own ability and I still use that in any exams I take and most of all any sporting competitions I compete in.

In a stressful environment the body produces a harmful hormone called Cortisol that is released by the cortex (outer portion) of the adrenal gland when a person is under stress, Cortisol though is not entirely harmful as we use it to produce quick bursts of energy in our flight or fight response mechanism in a stressful situation which could save our lives. It also produces longer term chronic problems such as high blood pressure, lower immunity, thyroid problems and insulin response problems. Without getting to scientific (Biology was the exam I was talking about before where I scored high marks!) Cortisol is bad news and this can have an adverse affect on sporting performance especially at the beginning of a long distance sport event like an Ironman. For example if you are highly stressed leading into your first major Ironman which is not an uncommon thing, your body secretes Cortisol which in turn counteracts the bodies insulin response which can cause hyper-glycemia, this can cause a problem leading into the race as your race morning nutrition can be all messed up due to the Cortisol response. So Cortisol is a bad thing and that has been established but how do we manage to deal with a stressful environment and limit the side effects.

Pre-race anxiety is an all too common problem I see with age groupers and professionals, and everyone deals with stress differently, some people stay silent and become withdrawn to the surroundings while others need to talk and laugh in order to distract themselves from thinking about the oncoming event. I have found that the more relaxed you are leading into an event the better your body feels when the gun goes off, but this is easier said than done obviously and there are heaps of ways to deal with this stress and anxiety before a big race.

Mental Preparation

Mental preparation and readiness are two different things yet both are as important as each other when dealing with pre-race tension. Mental preparation for a big event starts right at the beginning of your goal setting once you have targeted a race and this gives you the confidence to approach the race KNOWING  you have done the work and are prepared to the best of your ability. This is where a training plan and a good coach can help, if no stone is left unturned in your preparation then your ability to cope race day will be a lot better.

Mental readiness is more of a visualization tool which you can use when approaching a race, I find it beneficial to take some time to relax and visualize how your race will plan out in accordance with your preparation. Your brain and body is an amazing tool as it can produce hormones the moment you think of something which stimulates it. Visualise your body feeling good during the bike for example and become used to that feeling so when race day comes along you are excited and confident to race not nervous and apprehensive.


Much like in a major exam or job interview, Nerves can play havoc with our brains and the wiring that connects the brain to the mouth! I see nerves as a barrier which is standing in the way of releasing all the knowledge or sporting ability we can harness. If we take the nervous energy away the knowledge and confidence flows freely and is easy to unlock. This is the same on race day and as I mentioned before with the cortisol response, the more we can stop the nervous energy the better we can utilize all the bodies and minds positive and beneficial aspects.

I found a good way to deal with nervous energy is to go for an easy run or ride before you even get to transition, this will get the heart rate up and start dispersing the cortisol. During times of high stress in my life I have found exercise to be the best medicine, so I use it on race day to deal with the pre-race anxiety. Your eating routine can also affect how you cope on race day, I have found I deal with nerves a lot better on a light meal before a competition as stress has effects on the digestive system. Eating a large breakfast coupled with nerves can lead to it sitting uncomfortably in the stomach and bouncing up and down your throat during an Ironman swim which is quite unpleasant.

Tips on dealing with race day nerves

  • Incorporate some mental visualization technique in your preparation
  • Tell yourself you have DONE the work leading into this race
  • When you are at the start line “it is what it is” so let your self go and enjoy the moment and give 100%
  • Eat a light breakfast
  • Use a familiar but comfortable warm up routine
  • Everyone else is just as nervous if not more so
  • The more relaxed you are the easier it will be to unleash your energy in a controlled state
  • Be positive!