Pre-race jitters are a very common, expected aspect of competing, and all athletes experience them to varying degrees. They are a manifestation of processes occurring in the body which prepare it for action -- the “fight or flight” response. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is the part of the body responsible for the symptoms that an athlete experiences, and epinephrine (“adrenalin”) is one of several hormones released into the bloodstream. The goal of this nervous system activation is to help the body achieve peak performance and is a survival mechanism.

Some of the specifics of the SNS response include improved reflexes, enhanced memory, regulation of blood flow, and a switch to a catabolic state. The latter causes fat stores and liver glycogen to be broken down. This insures a steady stream of fuel -- fatty acids and glucose, respectively -- for the heart, muscles, and vital organs.

The downside of SNS activation is that it causes a series of annoying symptoms. Diarrhea, intestinal cramping, tremors (“shakes”), sweating, palpitations, nervousness and irritability are some of the distractions that an athlete may face. Sometimes these symptoms may become so great that they go beyond the nuisance stage and performance suffers.

Thus, since SNS activation is important to race well, but too much causes a decrease in performance, the goal is to reach a middle ground. This will maximize performance, but keep the adverse symptoms to a minimum. There are mechanisms athletes can use to regulate their degree of SNS activation -- as well as some things to avoid -- and these are vital to achieving consistent, high performance.

  • Establish a routine. The race day routine starts when you wake up, and ends when the gun goes off. You should determine how many hours before the race you need to get up to accomplish all of the steps in your routine. A few of the components in the routine are calorie intake, fluids, travel time to race location, warm-up, stretching, equipment check, mental exercises, etc.... Some components will vary depending upon the type and length of the race, but the basic framework will remain constant. Every time you race it is different, but developing a consistent routine will provide a familiar base from which to launch your race. It will also give you confidence that you know you are ready to race.
  • Mental exercises. You will often see top athletes close their eyes and engage in seemingly strange behavior, appearing either catatonic or moving to some unseen rhythm. The latter is especially evident in downhill skiers who sway and gyrate. They are rehearsing all the elements required in the race. This mental imagery helps you focus and plan each stage of your race. This takes the over-energized concept of “GO FAST, WIN”, and changes it into a series of steps, calmly planned and executed. Sometimes music (via headphones) is useful but it must not be distracting nor result in the wrong mood.

  • Breathing exercises and progressive muscular relaxation are other techniques that can alter your level of SNS activation and reduce unwanted muscular tension.
  • Monitor your body. Look for, and pay attention to, the signals your body provides. This will give you feedback as to the state of your SNS. Pulse rate, respiration rate, sweat rate, tremor and other clues give you a way to see where you are, and how effective your modulating techniques are.

  • Diet and Drugs.
  1. Avoid fiber rich foods in the two days leading up to a race. The extra ‘bulk’ in the intestines means the cramping and diarrhea will be worse.
  2. Avoid anti-inflammatory medications (e.g., ibuprofen) since these alter prostagladin synthesis and can result in intestinal cramps and diarrhea.
  3. Avoid protein/ fat rich foods for breakfast on race day.
  4. Avoid excess alcohol consumption. One 12 oz. beer before bed is unlikely to hurt you, but six will definitely make your guts and brain very unhappy on race day.
  5. Be careful of caffeine. Some athletes use caffeine as a performance aid, but too much can definitely cause intestinal cramping and diarrhea, and contribute to nervousness and rapid pulse.
  6. Stay away from pseudoephedrine and other stimulants. Not only are these decongestants banned, but they may have considerable neurological (e.g., anxiety) and cardiovascular (e.g., rapid pulse) side effects.
  7. Avoid nicotine.
  8. Avoid diphenhydramine and other over-the-counter antihistamines for 24 hours before the race since their sedating effects may carry over. Also some people get a paradoxical reaction and get too hyped up.