Bottle it Up, Embrace the Butterflies, Expect it to Hurt...Happy Racing!
Chaski Coach Kimber Mattox likes to use science and knowledge to guide training but also believes in finding what works best for each individual athlete. Kimber is in her second career in trail and mountain running after a long 3-4 years of not being able to run due to injury. Through her injury and comeback, Kimber has developed a strong belief in everyone’s ability to achieve their wildest, dreamiest dreams.
Whether it’s a virtual race, solo time trial, FKT attempt, or a real race...it’s race day! Picture it, what does race day feel like? Chances are you get a mix of the nervous butterflies and the race day excitement. Maybe you’ve been excited all week or maybe you’ve felt tired and lethargic all week. There are three common race week and race day questions coaches often get:
- Why do I feel tired when I’m tapering for a race?
- If I get really nervous before a race, how do I manage that?
- In the middle of a race, when it gets hard, how do I stay mentally tough?
We’ve probably all experienced during race week we’re in full-on taper mode, running less and thinking we should be feeling fantastic, but we feel oddly tired. It can be frustrating because we think “I’m running less” and “I haven’t done anything hard this week,” and “I’m supposed to feel fresh and ready to race.” And yet we feel more ready to climb in bed and sleep all day. But most of the time, that’s all NORMAL! One of my coaching mentors used to call it sandbagging. I like to call it The Bottle It Up Effect. Our bodies are pretty smart. They recognize there’s this big thing we’re gearing up for and we want to have as much energy as possible for that, so our body makes us tired so we don’t waste the energy we could be bottling up for that race. So how do we cope with these weeks and still feel ready to race on race day?
#1 Forget all the "listening to how your body feels" stuff that us coaches tell you every other week of the year. This is a time to (mostly) ignore how your body feels and just go through the motions. That doesn’t mean slog along at a super slow pace every run and not enjoy your runs. It just means, do what is on your training plan for the week...short easy runs, super speedy strides, pre-race workouts, weights, and whatever else was planned, but just don’t overthink it if it doesn’t FEEL like you expected it to.
#2 Run with other people. Chat with friends on your runs, leave your GPS and pace tracking behind, and talk about things other than running. That way the week and the days will go by as fast and painlessly as possible and you’ll probably have forgotten about the whole sandbagging thing that was going on.
#3 Fill your extra time during taper week with things that are productive and/or enjoyable but that don’t require a lot of extra stress or energy. Sometimes having extra time because you’re running less during a taper can make us a little stir crazy and stressed out. So fill in the gaps so your week feels a little more normal. I like to do things like call friends who I’ve been meaning to call, read or listen to podcasts, or maybe even clean the house.
#4 Recognize that you probably will get nervous the day before and on your race and that you might not feel any less like a bag of sh…. oh sorry, sand, until you start warming up for the race or even until the start gun goes off, and that is perfectly ok and even NORMAL. I remember this one race lead up where The Bottle it Up Effect was in full swing, to the point where I cried on more than one run the week leading up to the race. I ended up having an awesome race.
So on race week when you’re in taper mode and not feeling how you expected, trust your TRAINING not how you FEEL. I’m definitely not saying anytime you’re tired, ignore it and push through. This concept only applies to the specific pre-race Bottle it Up scenario. Your coaches should be able to help you navigate this!
Ok, so you’ve successfully bottled it up and made it to the race but you’re REALLY nervous! What do we do about that?! First of all, recognize that the feeling of being nervous is your body’s way of preparing for something hard and that’s NORMAL. Your body is about to go to battle and the way it knows to prepare for battle is to kick into fight or flight mode (sympathetic nervous system). So try to shift your perspective and embrace being nervous as a very normal thing that most people experience and that it’s your body’s way of preparing for the race. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to minimize race day stress.
A strategy that a lot of elite athletes use to reduce race-day stress is to minimize the number of decisions they have to make on that day. They create a race day routine that is structured but flexible. This means they don’t have to worry about what they’re going to eat or wear on race day or what time they’re going to leave for the race because they’ve already decided those things ahead of time. Some people will even write out their race day plan and timeline. It’s of course important to know that you may have to be flexible if unexpected things come up, and expecting some unexpected can reduce stress if it does happen. Visualizing the race ahead of time can also help ease our nerves. If we teach our brains that we know what to expect on race day, it feels a little less scary. So spend a few minutes laying down, breathing deep, and visualizing your race.
Ready, Set, Go! The gun goes off, the nervous butterflies immediately disappear and you’re smiling and racing. You’re feeling great for the first half of the race then in the middle it starts to get hard. How do we stay mentally tough and keep pushing when it gets hard? A lot of staying tough when a race gets hard actually happens well before the race ever starts. Here are some of my favorite strategies:
- The night before the race, take a few minutes to prepare yourself mentally for the fact that it is going to get hard and uncomfortable and decide ahead of time what you’re going to do when it gets hard. If you’ve already decided to be tough in that moment, then when the moment comes, you’re less likely to give yourself the option of easing up in critical parts of the race.
- Embrace the discomfort when it comes, knowing the only way to run your best race is to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
- Create mantras or little sayings you can use throughout the race to remind yourself you are strong and tough and that you want that goal or PR. Sometimes for me this can even be a song.
- Practice practice practice! Being tough in the middle of the race is hard for all of us, even the professionals, that’s why we practice racing. So commit to practicing that in races throughout the season. It’s something you can improve, just like your fitness.
- Use external cues, like reminding yourself that everyone around you is hurting as much as you are and that you can be tougher than them. Pick trees, turns in the course, or other environmental cues as check in points or push points.
- Forgive yourself when you don’t execute it perfectly and commit to practicing it again in the next race.
- Smile...yes actually smile, in the race. You can trick your brain into thinking you feel better than you do. There’s real science to back this up, seriously!
Bottle it up, embrace the butterflies, expect it to hurt….happy racing!
— Kimber Mattox
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