For competitive racing newbies, stepping up to the starting line can be intimidating. What if you can’t finish? What if your time isn’t what you expected? What if you come in dead last? While experts say these concerns are certainly valid, they’re also (somewhat) avoidable if you train the right way and follow these tips.
Put in the work
Deena Kastorknows a thing or two about race day. She holds the American record in the marathon and half marathon, and she's a long-distance Olympic medalist. “No matter the sport, the best thing you can do to have peace of mind on race day is to really put the work in with proper training,” she says. “I’m never really nervous because I know I’ve optimized every day leading up to the race and have the training behind me.”
“Training is easier with another person,” says Gary Berard, a New York-based RRCA-certified running coach who works with rookies and elites alike. “They’ll hold you accountable to your training plan and you’ll be less likely to blow off a workout.” If you don’t have a single person, find a group. “Every major city has training programs that can match you up with like-minded people.”
You might also consider hiring a coach, says Jade Wilcoxson, a professional cyclist who starting biking five years and 20 pounds ago. “When I first started out, I got three months of coaching as a gift and it was the best present I could have gotten. She’d look at a calendar, set my goals, and plan my workouts around my full-time job and my social engagements for the month.”
Fake it ’til you make it
Don’t worry if you’re not as fit as some of the other competitors, Wilcoxson says. “I’d look around and see these people with expensive gear and toned bodies and then I’d look down at myself and feel frumpy and think I didn’t belong in the race,” she recalls. “But you just have to pretend you have confidence and throw yourself out there. Push the negativity out of your head and you’ll surprise yourself—I know I did. And remember, you have nothing to lose by doing a race and coming in last.”
Don’t leave anything to chance
On race day, remove any and all variables that are within your control, advises Berard. “With the exception of the weather, there’s a lot you can control. Know what you’re going to eat and what you’re going to wear, and work out all the details you can before you step up to the starting line. Even the best athletes get butterflies—it’s a sign that you care. You just want them to fly in the same direction.”
Remember, everyone had a first race
Take advantage of the camaraderie of the other participants on race day, says Kastor. “There’s a mutual respect among everyone out there. Regardless of your level, you all have goals and dreams and the commitment to be progressive and change for the better—people respect that,” she says. “Everyone wants to see everyone else succeed. There’s no reason for anyone to be insecure.”
On top of that, directors of large races do their best to line up individuals by predicted pace. There’s a staggered starting line, so if you’re averaging a 10-minute mile, chances are you won’t be alongside a 7-minute miler.
Have a good time
“So much of our life is spent working and raising families and not enjoying alone time, that when you’re out there on race day, having fun should be a priority,” Berard says.
“I get butterflies in my stomach and a prickly feeling on my skin. Some might call that being nervous, but I call it excitement,” Kastor says. “To me, every race is an opportunity to out-do yourself from the day before. I’m just excited to be a part of it and go out there and show what I’ve been working towards.”