Harnessing the race day nerves

At last, it’s the moment you’ve prepared for: race day.  You’re amped, you’re excited, maybe you’re nervous. What you’re feeling is your body’s sympathetic nervous system response to stress, otherwise known as fight-or-flight:

—Heart and breathing rate are elevated
—Sweating increases
—Muscles contract
—Hands start shaking


Healthy amounts of stress will actually elevate performance—stress can help us feel awake, primed, and motivated to perform.  Too much stress and anxiety, however, and things can go downhill pretty quickly:

—Muscles become overly tense and movement begins to feel rigid
—The “flow” state is impeded
—The speech and logic center in our brain begins to shut down
—(Perhaps the worst side effect of feeling too much stress): doubt creeps in 

The view for PNW rowers during their early morning training hours. 

The view for PNW rowers during their early morning training hours. 

Can we control our body’s natural fight-or-flight response on race day?  Absolutely.  And when we do—when we channel stress in a positive way—we elevate our performance to new levels.  Here are a few tips on how to harness the race day nerves.   

Have a routine.
Have a pre-game routine you’ve repeated enough in practice that it’s automatic.  Nervous energy can take up an inordinate amount of mental bandwidth—have a routine you count on so you can fall right into action when you start feeling stressed. 

 —Preview the course, and spend a little extra time working through technical sections that make you nervous.   Limit yourself to three runs through tricky sections, then move on.

 —Know your performance day nutrition plan.  Nothing new on race day!  Use practice and training time to experiment with new fuels.

 —If music helps, put together a playlist that puts you into your ideal performance mindset.  If you’re a particularly anxious person, choose a play list that keeps you feeling calm. 

Start moving.  
When we’re nervous, our muscles literally freeze up.  The simple act of moving will put your mind at ease and relax your body.  Get out and start warming up, you’ll immediately feel more relaxed and in control. 

Focus on the things you can control.
There’s no point in expending precious race day energy on stressing about things that are beyond our control, such as weather or course conditions.  Analyze the conditions so you know what to expect, but don’t stress over rough water or a slippery CX course.  Those who approach nasty conditions with a smile automatically have an edge on the competition.      

Prime yourself.
This is where the physiological and mental bleed together into one, and where there is an enormous amount of upside for every athlete, regardless of their age, level of experience, or current state of fitness.  When you’re feeling nervous, channel that nervous energy by focusing on images of successful performance.  Why?  Studies have shown that positive imagery, words or mantras stimulate the release of oxytocin, a calming hormone that helps the body relax. 

During your visualization, focus specifically on the outcome you’re shooting for, rather than on the technical details of how to make it happen—we’re better able to relax and find the flow when we’re tuned into a strategic, big-picture focus.  For example, rowers who want to churn out big power can envision the bend in the oar on the drive; for a boat needing more run and control, envision big puddle spacing.   

For the CX racers out there, try visualizing a smooth, controlled exit out of tight corners and through technical sections. Rather than focusing in on the minute details of body position, visualize yourself flowing through challenging terrain with speed and grace.  See the outcome you want.  See yourself coasting into barriers and accelerating out with speed and poise.   Don’t get me wrong, there’s still an appropriate time and place to break skills down into small parts: your skills practice days.  Race day is the time for strategic focus so you stay relaxed, controlled and fluid.   


Feeling stress on race day is normal.  It’s a good thing, in fact!  Keep it in check, though, so you’re able to relax and be your best.  Next time you start feeling anxious on race day, take a deep breath and use these tools to turn that nervous energy into fuel to perform.