The Butterfly Infestation

Today’s guest post comes from Leah Washington, a certified athletic trainer who is currently finishing up her doctorate in sport psychology, and member of the Columbus Marathon Psych Team.

Photo Oct 08, 1 00 21 PMGetting butterflies in your stomach? The big day is almost here, and whether this is your first marathon or your 10th, many of you will be (or maybe already are) feeling some nerves.  Some of us start thinking about all the ways the race could end up a horrible flaming disaster and are thinking we-will-be-humiliated-and-life-will-be-over-and-we-should-just-quit-now! This is called “cognitive anxiety.”  Others experience shakiness, sweating, upset stomachs, muscle tension, increased heart rate, difficulty breathing, dizziness, or other physical symptoms. This is known as “somatic anxiety.”  Most of us feel a little (or a lot) of both, but either way, these feelings can get in the way of our success and having fun.

What are “butterflies” anyway?
“Getting butterflies” is more formally known as Performance Anxiety or Pre-Competitive Anxiety, and has been studied for decades.  Anxiety happens when there is a perceived threat (i.e. in this case running 26.2 miles) and we are unsure if we have the ability to meet the demands this threat requires. For example, if you are a new marathoner, you might worry that you won’t have enough physical or mental energy to finish.  If you are an experienced marathoner you might worry that you won’t meet your goal time or miss out on qualifying for another race.  The key here is that the imbalance in demands vs. ability is often perceived, not necessarily reality.  Many times we confuse ourselves between what could possibly happen and what is most likely to happen.  Is it possible that you will run the course in the wrong direction/get lost/throw up/swallow a bug/trip into the aid station and knock over all the cups?  Sure, but it isn’t likely.

What we can do about it: Getting the butterflies to fly in formation!

  1. Normalize your nervousness.  Many athletes feel this way, even those who have been training for years and are massively successful.  There is no need to feel bad about getting jittery- it’s totally ok!  Tiger Woods once said, “I always feel pressure. If you don’t feel nervous, that means you don’t care about how you play. I care about how I perform. I’ve always said the day I’m not nervous playing is the day I quit.”
  2. Thought management: How do you think about what you think about?  Are you really nervous or actually really excited?  How we think about things can make a big difference- if we constantly think about our nervousness or anticipation in a negative framework our anxiety will continue to increase and that can negatively impact our performance.  I like to remind athletes that this feeling of anticipation can be a positive thing- you are looking forward to the race, so this is a feeling of enthusiasm rather than apprehension. If you continually find yourself stressing out about the race, ask yourself if there is another (more positive) way you might interpret what you are feeling. Now let’s go back to those “what ifs.”  What if you actually do fall down and knock over all the cups?  You can’t prepare for every disaster specifically, but you can decide ahead of time how you will handle mistakes as they come up.  I actually showed a draft of this post to my friend Brian who is a very experienced racer, and he told me that every single one of those things has happened to him at one point or another. No one in the history of time has ever run a “perfect” race, so the key is to react positively when something unexpected happens (because it will); there is no need to beat yourself up for the next 18 miles.  It often helps to have a “cue”- a word or phrase that you can use to remind yourself to stay in a positive state of mind when you feel yourself getting off track.  Examples might be, “keep moving forward” “you got this” “keep fighting” or “stay present.”  Your cue word can be anything meaningful to you- it doesn’t even need to make sense- as long as it helps you manage your negative thoughts so they don’t drag you down.
  3. Visualization: Seeing is believing!  If you haven’t already, take a look at the course map.  Imagine yourself running the course from start to finish.  See yourself running down Broad Street. Imagine running past The Horseshoe on Woody Hayes Drive.  See yourself running past the beautiful houses of Victorian Village.  And most importantly, see yourself crossing the finish line.  The more familiar a situation is the less likely we are to become anxious about it, and the more likely we are to believe it will actually occur.
  4. Have a plan and stick to the familiar.  What do you normally do before a run? Do you listen to a particular kind of music? Eat a specific kind of snack?  Now is not the time to do something “special” for race day.  You know what works for you, so stick with that.  Also plan out where you will park, what time you will get to the race, what clothes you will wear, where you will meet your fans after the race, etc.  When these little things are planned out in advance, we feel more confident and prepared.

Lastly, trust your training!  You have done all the work, so know that your training schedule has prepared you for this day.  Rely on all those miles you have already put into your journey. You have done the work, the race is now your chance to show it!

I’m always nervous. If I wasn’t nervous, it would be weird. I get the same feeling at all the big races. It’s part of the routine, and I accept it. It means I’m there and I’m ready.”

– Allyson Felix, Gold and Silver Olympic medalist


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