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7 Tips to Cope with Triathlon Race Nerves

with Lesley Paterson

You’re trying to sleep the night before your big race. Your head is spinning with self-doubt and anxiety: What if I suck? What if I drown? What if I need to stop? Your butterflies feel more like angry birds, and you can’t wait for it all to be over. If racing is supposed to be fun, it sure doesn’t feel like it. Sound familiar? Well, you’re not alone.  I battled with chronic race nerves until I finally trained myself to not be bullied by them anymore. Here are my top tips to help you do the same.

Triathlon Race Nerves

  1. Don’t wish the physical feelings away, reinterpret them. Getting physically nervous is a GREAT sign. It means you’re ready. While it isn’t nice to feel nauseous, have a racing heart, be a heavy breather, get sweaty palms and be desperate to poop and pee, it’s essential if you’re going to give your physical best. These adaptations are your body’s way of getting metabolically, neurologically and biochemically ready to smash it. Thank you, nerves.
  2. Control your ears and your eyes. The part of your brain that detects and interprets information as threatening is on high alert and working under the radar of your conscious, rational brain. Deprive it of fuel by refusing to listen or look at things that raise doubts. Wear a hoodie, a cap, sunglasses, and headphones and walk through transition like a boss.
  3. Develop a pre-race ritual. Habits are like comfort blankets for the brain. Develop a cast iron ritual for the 24 hours before a race. Try to do the exact same thing every time, right up to the starting gun. For example, once my transitions are set up, I get body marked, eat a gel, then walk through both transitions, memorizing the paths. Every. Time.
  4. Exhaust the negativity by listening to it. This isn’t an invite to give yourself the worst self-talk ever, but to remove the wind from the sails of an internal tantrum. Say out loud all of the things that you secretly fear. Keep going until you run out of fears or you start repeating yourself. It might take two minutes, it might take 15 minutes. It’s the brain’s version of crying itself to sleep. It’s also backed by science.
  5. Mini stress-buster technique. As you feel the jitters coming on, take five deep ‘belly’ breaths, each with a four-second exhalation. Because anxiety causes muscles to contract, it reduces joint flexibility and impacts good biomechanics. You can restore a relaxed state by performing a five-second voluntary contraction of each major muscle group, followed by its release. Focus on the sensations of lightness and warmth after each contraction. Finish with five more belly breaths.
  6. Get laser-focused on the process. Things that we worry about before a race haven’t happened yet. All that matters is what you need to do right now to execute the skill to the best of your ability. Recite technique mantras to stay focused on the here-and-now and remind you of what’s needed to be the fastest you can be. My swim mantra is “Long, Strong, and Roll.” My bike mantra is: “Smooth is Fast, Fast is Smooth.” My run mantra is “Quick feet, stand tall.” I’ll run through these mantras like a prayer before every race.
  7. Remember your “why.” The more you can connect your race day experience with why you do triathlon, the better. This should be your happy place. Mine is freedom. When your strip away all of the other stuff – the training, the racing, the logistics and the fears – there should be ONE key ingredient that keeps you coming back. What’s your why? Learn it, love it, live it.

Lesley Paterson Advice

Lesley Paterson is a Liv ambassador, a 3-time World Champion triathlete, professional mountain biker, and co-author of “The Brave Athlete: Calm the F*ck Down and Rise to the Occasion.” (VeloPress).  Available from