Before the start line: Seeking calm and confidence with pre-race rituals 

by Kate Courtney


Three hours before the starting gun goes off, it begins. I slip into a carefully rehearsed series of actions, so familiar to me by this point in the season that I don’t need to make lists or leave reminders. The rituals are second nature: wake up, meditate, visualize, eat my watt waffles. The rhythm of action takes me from anxious anticipation to focused excitement. My body knows something is coming, but I feel calm. I know what to do at every step.

In training, I don’t need routines or reminders to help me focus on the process. I do it instinctively. I rarely think nervously about the outcome of a workout, or how I will feel once I get on my bike. I just think about one step at a time and before I know it another breakfast, warm-up, hard interval, big ride, and eventually huge training block, is behind me. Each step feels like something I can execute and each day another step in the direction of my goals. I just wake up, take the day as it comes and quietly do my job. When it comes to racing, however, my rituals serve as important and calming cues that bring me back to the present moment and remind me to trust the process.

Part of what makes racing so exciting is its unpredictability. If the outcome were predetermined, or if you knew the strongest person would win every time, there would be no need to hold a race at all. But believing that anything can happen after I cross that start line means I also have to accept the uncertainty. There is nothing more exciting than being given the opportunity to do your best and make magic happen out on course, but it lives alongside the fear and understanding it may not go your way. I often struggle all week with the roller coaster of emotions that come from World Cup racing — excitement, joy, fear, doubt, and plain-old nervousness. But when race day comes, something changes.

Kate Courtney before the UCI XCO World Cup race in Mont Sainte Anne, Canada, on August 12, 2018. Photo: Bartek Wolinski/Red Bull Content Pool.

My pre-race rituals help me channel those emotions into fuel for the fire. My rituals help me switch from thinking about racing to trusting the process. At each step, I don’t have to think, I just focus on one action at a time. I am consumed by the process. I get on the rollers at the same time I always do, I execute the same warm-up and even drink my Red Bulls at the same intervals. It’s a carefully choreographed dance that helps me arrive at the start line calm and confident so that I’m ready to rise to the challenge. I trust that this process, one I have executed so many times before, will get me ready so I can relax and enjoy the moment. No two race days are exactly the same, but the ritual ends the same way every time — with me standing on the start line feeling ready for anything.

No matter how hard you try to block it out, you have to think and feel some way on race day. So why not think about how prepared you are? Why not feel like it’s your day? My pre-race rituals remind me that, while there are so many things in racing I cannot control, I have done everything I possibly can to get my mind and body ready for battle.

Tips for creating your own pre-race rituals

Experiment: I strongly recommend developing your own pre-race rituals to help you feel calm, collected, and ready to compete on race day. There are a few main things you can use to ground your routines; obviously the time that the race starts marks the end of the routine, but you can mark the beginning with something simple like a meditation or preparing your pre-race meal. Start with this basic framework and experiment with different actions and timing until you have a set of rituals that makes you feel ready to rock. The perfect ritual is the one that works best for you and helps switch you from thinking to trusting and engaging with the process.

Be flexible: It’s extremely important to design a routine that is flexible and can adapt to unexpected changes in timing. For example, I have had a flat tire the morning of a race and had to shorten my warm up after waiting to switch wheels. I was able to stay calm, do a shorter version of my routine and still roll to the start line feeling prepared. If your routines become too rigid, they can actually end up making you feel less prepared when race day doesn’t go perfectly to plan.

A few things that are a part of my pre-race rituals

Pre-race meal: Experiment in training to find a pre-race meal and timing that works for you. A good starting point is having a meal high in carbohydrates — my go-to is pancakes or waffles — about 2.5-3 hours before your race or big workout. There is no perfect meal or perfect timing, it all depends on what works for you and makes you feel your best. Test it out in training and start to tune into the best timing for your body.

Getting organized: I find that being extremely organized on race day alleviates a lot of last-minute stress. I lay out everything I will need — kit, race nutrition, bottles, etc. — the night before so I can easily get ready and pack my finish bag in the morning. This works for me, but I know other riders who like to get organized and lay things out in the morning as a calming ritual. Find the timing that makes you feel most prepared and calm on race day.

Deep breathing: I’m a big fan of meditation and visualization. Regardless of whether these are specifically part of your routine, it can make a big difference to just to incorporate deep breaths on race day. When you take deep and slow breaths, you are welcoming a series of physiological changes that reduce stress and anxiety and can aid your performance. When we’re anxious or stressed, our bodies go into “fight or flight” mode as the sympathetic nervous system is activated. Deep and slow breathing helps get more oxygen into your body and counteracts this anxious feeling by activating your parasympathetic nervous system which, among other things, slows your heart rate. Adding a few sets of deep breaths as the race start gets closer can help you get in the zone and tap into a feeling of calm excitement!

About the author

Kate Courtney is a professional cross-country mountain-bike racer for the Specialized Factory Team and is the 2017 and 2018 U.S. national XC champion. In 2017, she won the U23 World Cup overall title, and took a silver medal at the U23 world championship. In 2018, her first season racing elite XC World Cups, she had six top-10 finishes in seven starts. Off the bike, she’s a self-described “huge nerd” with a degree in human biology from Stanford University. She’s a fan of any and all outdoor adventures, but is mostly in it for the snack breaks. You can follow her adventures on Instagram and Twitter.


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