Returning To Racing: How to get your head in the game

By Molly Hurford

If you’re getting nervous about the return to racing, you’re not alone. Whether you’ve already been doing some time trials this season or you’re just now getting ready to head to a small mass-start event, everyone in Ontario is feeling a little nervous (or rusty) when it comes to racing. Whether you’re a seasoned pro or this is your first race, there are a few things you can do to make the day go smoother. Here, we’re talking through some mental performance tips for those of us who haven’t raced in two years and are getting nervous about the idea of a mass start or even a time trial event.

Understand that it’s natural

Everyone else is feeling just as nervous as you are. Ottawa-based Mental Performance Consultant Amy Bell recommends trying to channel those nerves into excitement: The signals in our brain read nerves and excitement in the same way, so use this to your advantage. You’re not scared about this race, you’re just really, really excited!

Make a schedule and a checklist

It’s been a while since we’ve headed to a race, and that means it’s much more likely that many of us will leave the house without a critical piece of gear like a helmet, shoes, bike, small child, et cetera. If you’re feeling stressed even early in the week ahead of your race, it might be that the pre-race is the issue rather than the race itself. To help avoid this, make a schedule of the events leading up to your race, including things like what you’ll eat for breakfast or what time you need to leave the house to get to the course with time to warm up or how long your warmup will be. Then, make a checklist of every piece of gear you’ll need before, during and after your race, getting as granular as possible.

Remember those race day time sucks

While making that schedule, remember to add buffer time for things like waiting in line to park or pick up your race number. You may want extra time to hit the port-a-potty. You may need to change your kit after a sweaty warmup. And you definitely want plenty of time to leisurely make your way over to the start line with time to spare. Add those into your schedule, since you’re no longer used to the race day rhythm and might forget how these little things add up!

Don’t skip meals beforehand

The day before his first Canada Cup back after 18 months of not racing, junior devo athlete Ian Ackert was so nervous that he was barely able to eat breakfast, and he says the other riders staying with him before the race felt the same. Still, they managed to get through some oatmeal before heading to the race—and that’s essential for a good race day. (Not the oatmeal necessarily, though it is a great race day option—we’re just talking about eating something!)

Practice belly breathing

If you watched any track coverage from the Olympics, you may have noticed that on the start line, in the 15 to 20 seconds before the gun went off and the races began, riders’ bellies would expand and contract in a really obvious way. (Don’t believe me? Watch a replay here.) They’re using a deep breathing technique, breathing through the nose and focusing on expanding their bellies on the inhale, then letting all the air slowly out on the exhale. It sounds simple, but taking this slow, deep breaths before your start will help calm your nervous system down and release some of the jitters.

Consider these early races as “information”

When I’m teaching yoga classes, I often tell students to think about how their body feels from one side to the other. Is the right side tighter than the left in Pigeon pose? But after I ask them to notice that, I also remind them that it’s not a good thing or a bad thing, it’s just information. Take the stress out of these first races back by thinking of them in the same way: Whatever your result is, the entire race day experience is a great place to gather information. How did you feel in the start of the race? How did your gut feel after breakfast? Was there any gear you wish you’d brought with you? Is there somewhere on the course that felt amazing—or somewhere you felt like next race, you could go harder? Take time after the race to reflect on how it went, and gather that information to use for next time. (We just did an episode all about dissecting your race on my podcast, The Consummate Athlete, and you can listen here.)

Have fun

We know that COVID restrictions and masks and no hugs or high-fives can easily make an event feel a bit more formal/stressful. But remember, you’re out and racing your bike because it’s what you love to do. So have fun! Give air hugs and air high fives, cheer your fellow riders on, and savor the fact that you’re spending some time outside doing the sport you enjoy.

About the writer:

Molly Hurford is a journalist in love with all things cycling, running, nutrition and movement-related. When not outside, she’s writing about being outside and healthy habits of athletes and interviewing world-class athletes and scientists for The Consummate Athlete podcast and website, and most recently launched the book ‘Becoming A Consummate Athlete.‘ She’s the author of multiple books including the Shred Girls, a young adult fiction series and online community focused on getting girls excited about bikes. Molly is a little obsessed with getting people psyched on adventure and being outside, and she regularly hosts talks and runs clinics for cyclists and teaches yoga online and IRL… And in her spare time, the former Ironman triathlete now spends time tackling long runs and rides on trails or can be found out hiking with her mini-dachshund DW and husband, cycling coach and kinesiologist Peter Glassford.