Ask the Coach: "How Can I Calm My Starting-Line Panic?"
This university athlete can't wait to run ... straight out of the arena. Patrick Sang—Eliud Kipchoge's coach—has some practical advice for him.
Ask the Coach is an advice column to help you keep your mind in the game.
I've been running practically since I could walk, and it's always been my sport. I'm in my junior year of high school, and I'm the fastest runner on my team and one of the best in the state. All the attention is on me—from family and friends, teammates and coaches, and university recruiters—and I'm starting to crumble under the pressure. The only thing people seem to want to talk to me about is the next race. Even during training, my teammates go on and on about which competitors they think I can beat. With the stakes at an all-time high, every time I approach the starting line, I feel like I can't breathe. And the more I try to relax, the more panicked I get. How can I get my courage back and start looking forwards to running again?
Fretting Every Anxious Race
You are not alone, FEAR. Many, many runners face anxiety, especially right before a race.
Unfortunately, for competitive athletes, that anxiety can feel like it's in the air we breathe. And sometimes, in a way, it is. That's because competitors love to talk about competition: who we're up against, our personal records, and what's at stake. If a lot of athletes join the conversation, it can seem like the anxiety is all around you.
Sometimes athletes create this atmosphere by accident. Other times, it's intentional. Some runners will actually use anxiety to distract or discourage other competitors. It happens, and you need to be aware of that.
When I was in the World Championships in 1987, I had the honour of competing against some great athletes, one of whom had an amazing way of distracting his opponents before a race. He would go to the starting line and kick the blocks so hard that even someone all the way across the arena could hear. It was an intentional strategy, I believe—and very effective.
All this is to say, some of the anxiety you feel before a race could be coming from your environment. So the first step is to change that environment. Pay attention to who is talking nonstop about the competition and get a little space from them. Try listening to music, which I've found calms me down before a race. Even reading in the evenings leading up to a competition can help get your mind out of the loop. Think of it as practice for shifting your attention at the starting line.
There's another way you may be able to soothe your pre-race anxiety: Talk to your coach about taking on more responsibility.
Whenever I see that a runner is thinking too much about competition, I begin to guide them to take on more of a leadership role. Maybe they direct the setup at training. Maybe they lead our training sessions. Your mind wants a job to do, and when it does it well, you begin to believe in yourself and your anxiety fades into the background. This is also the reason that I have all the runners I coach do chores at running camp—even Eliud Kipchoge!
After all this talk about how to soothe your mind, I'm going to tell you something that might surprise you: Anxiety isn't necessarily a bad thing. I've always felt some level of anxiety as I prepare for a race, but I've learnt to use it to sharpen my concentration, to remind me what's at stake.
If you can train yourself to focus on how your body is moving when you're feeling anxious, you'll have a powerful tool to help you perform under pressure.
I started off running the steeplechase, which involves jumping over barriers and water. Your mind and body must be working together if you want to clear the next obstacle. This belief shapes my whole approach as a running coach. I want my runners to be aware of how their hands are swinging, how their legs are moving and where their eyes are focused. Even in a long-distance race, when staying aware of your sensations can be uncomfortable, a runner's mind and body should always be in sync. When they are, a runner can run smarter, not harder.
In a way, your anxiety is a cue for you to stay alert and pay attention. If you can train yourself to focus on how your body is moving when you're feeling anxious, you'll have a powerful tool to help you perform under pressure. This might not seem possible right now, when your anxiety is like a voice yelling at you to panic. But if you use all those other techniques we discussed—if you stay away from stressful conversations, calm your mind with music or reading and take on a leadership role within your team—your anxiety might get quieter and quieter until it's more like a whisper.
You can take this whisper as a message. It's saying, "Now is the time to focus. Now is the time to breathe. Now is the time to bring all your attention to the moment". Your anxiety might never go away completely, but it can change. And you may find that you need this different version of it.
Patrick Sang is a Kenyan running coach and retired runner. Since becoming Eliud Kipchoge's coach in 2002, Sang has helped him win a gold medal, set the marathon world record and become the first man to run a marathon in less than two hours. An international runner for Kenya, Sang won silver medals at the 1991 World Athletics Championships, 1992 Olympics and 1993 World Athletics Championships in the 3,000-metre steeplechase. Collegiately, Sang competed at the University of Texas at Austin, setting the university record for the 3,000-metre steeplechase.
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Photography: Kyle Weeks