Whether it’s a ‘cross race, a gravel event or a big team camp, the large events on our ride calendars can make us nervous. It’s natural to feel anxious when we’re wanting to perform and even more so when others are expecting us to or counting on us. Getting control of those feelings is one way to help ensure performance goals. Will you be able to completely suppress those sensations? Probably not. But handling them well will help you stay focused on your goals.
by Chris Mayhew
“The coward and the hero have the same feelings, it’s how they act that separates them.” -unknown.
We’ve all had pre-race nerves. The balled-up stomach. The pounding heart rate.The inability to sleep well the night before. The crushing self doubt. Or is it just me on that last one?
Pre-race nerves are one of the harder aspects of bike racing to deal with, especially when you are first starting out. I couldn’t eat solid food before a race for several years. It’s easy to let those feeling get away from us and become counterproductive to our performance, or to become so overwhelming that we can’t enjoy the experience. I can’t fix all that for you in one article or in one day, but let me offer a few tips to hopefully make your next event a tad easier and hopefully this fall’s cyclocross season will be a lot easier on you with some practice.
First, acknowledge your nerves. It’s a good sign actually. One of the most eye opening experiences I’ve had as a coach is watching a client, and at the time competitor, fall asleep a few hours before our A race of the year. That signaled a complete reevaluation of time management for them and demonstrated to me what the real limiters are for many people. If you’re nervous, that’s great! It’s good to have that energy level and to be excited. Don’t feel like it’s something to be ashamed of or that you need to tamp down. On the other hand, try and keep it appropriate. Try not to be cranked to 11 PM Wednesday night for a Sunday race. Don’t let it become its own entity that’s driving you. It’s a feeling and you’ve probably had a feeling before and generally you deal with them pretty well, right?
Early in the week, when you do have that feeling, sublimate it. I don’t mean print it on cycling clothing, but channel it. Every time you think “oh crap,” do something to take control of something you can actually affect. Go check your race bag for all your gloves. Make sure your chain is clean and lubed. Check the forecast and driving directions. Decide to turn off your phone and go to bed early. The immediate goal is to do something productive rather than spinning your wheels. The longer term goal is to have faith in your preparation. If you’ve taken control of everything you can take control of, you’ve done a great job and you have a lot less to worry about. Let that give you some confidence on race day.
Develop a routine. Honestly, I’ve eaten the same thing for breakfast for 4 years. You don’t have to be that extreme, but race day is already full of opportunities for things to go wrong. Anything you can do to give yourself a feeling of normalcy will help a lot. It also means fewer decisions to make on race day and therefore less to worry about. Having a routine also allows you to carve out a little space for yourself in the middle of a hectic morning. Almost every bike racer drinks coffee and those of us who travel a lot have a system for making it. It’s always very nice to take a moment and make my coffee the same way I would anywhere and enjoy the comforting sameness of that routine no matter what house I’m in.
On race day, breathe. You’re there, you’re amped up and it’s easy to get overwhelmed. What to do? Breathe. I know, it’s a cliche, but it actually really does work. It’s part of why yoga is so calming. Your lungs and heart are controlled by your vagus nerve, which functions as a part of the parasympathetic nervous system. When your adrenaline flows and your heart rate skyrockets, that’s the sympathetic nervous system, which controls the three Fs: fight, flight and mating. The parasympathetic controls post-three F actions, like calming down.
Breathing is one part of both systems you can actively take control of. By breathing in a deep, controlled manner you are stimulating the system that keeps you calm. That will in turn help lower your heart rate. Often what you’re interpreting as nervousness is a high heart rate and not an actual need to be worried. If you can bring your heart rate down a bit it will go a long way towards helping you feel more calm. Again, you’re trying to take a deliberate action in response to a feeling, and carve out some space for yourself to deal with it.
Everyone has race nerves. Everyone. We want to do well, we’re performing in front of our peers, and the stress of racing produces a flight or fight reaction in all of us. The key is to not those feelings overwhelm us.
Thanks to my yoga buddy and physician’s assistant Angie Phares for brushing me up on the sympathetic nervous system.