The five stages of getting over a bad race experience—and running better next time.By Kelly Pate Dwyer
From the December 2009 issue of Runner's World
You've trained for months, logging scores, or even hundreds of miles to prepare for your goal race. Then the big day arrives and something disastrous happens: You get the flu. You wake up to a freak hailstorm, heat wave, or blizzard. A killer muscle cramp stops you in your tracks. And with that, your dreams of running a PR or qualifying for Boston evaporate. Maybe you don't even reach the finish line. You're disappointed, maybe even devastated. Was all that hard work really worth it?
Of course it was, as long as you heed what went wrong. "Not meeting a race goal doesn't mean that the race is a failure," says Mark Wallis, a running coach and marathoner from Tucson. "If you can learn something from it, a bad race could be a stepping stone to a breakthrough performance. Also, when you work through a challenging experience, you develop mental strength and perseverance that will help you on your next tough run."
Getting into that mind-set and being able to learn from the past and refocus on the future isn't an easy task. So we've broken the process down into five stages that'll help you recover from the initial letdown and plan your comeback.
1. Immediately After WALLOW (A BIT)
"When you invest so much into your training and don't get the results you want, you have a right to be upset," says sports psychologist Karen Cogan of Denton, Texas. "Expressing your frustration should be part of your recovery process." Cry, mope, blog, vent to a fellow runner who can empathize. Do what you need to for a day or two (a week tops)—it'll help you move on.
2. The Morning After FIND A POSITIVE
Jane Buck's first marathon in 2008 seemed doomed from the get-go: She woke up feeling sick, a punctured gel oozed all over her hands at the start, her heart-rate monitor fell apart, and then it began to rain. At mile 19, she vomited. Still, she finished, which made her realize "I can do anything I set my mind to," she says. "Now when I'm having a tough time on a run, I think back to that race and I can keep going." Wallis says finding the silver lining will help you get over a bad day. "If you were able to adapt and work through, consider the race a success," he says. "Redirect your energy to something positive that came out of it, whether it's getting to run through a new city or getting a new race T-shirt for your collection."
3. A Week Later ANALYZE IT
Once your emotions settle, review your training plan, your diet, and your race-day strategy to see if there is anything you can improve upon. "Every race is a puzzle," says coach Jeff Horowitz, author of My First 100 Marathons. "Look for clues to solve the puzzle." Did you rest enough during your taper? Did you go out too fast? Did you drink enough leading up to—and during—the race? "What went wrong is sometimes within your control," says Horowitz, who is proof that mistakes can happen to experienced runners. In March, at his 141st marathon, he was on pace for a 3:15 finish. But 22 miles in, his energy tanked and his calf muscle cramped. He eventually finished in 3:35. "I pieced together what went wrong," he says. "I wasn't taking in enough electrolytes." He tweaked his nutrition strategy for his next race and finished strong, cramp-free—and 10 minutes faster.
4. Two Weeks Later SET NEW GOALS
Every athlete has bad races—even the ones who do this for a living. Britain's Paula Radcliffe dropped out of the 2004 Olympic Marathon, but three months later, staged an impressive comeback by winning the New York City Marathon. Elites like Radcliffe are able to bounce back because they have to, says sports psychologist Neal Bowes, of McLean, Virginia. If they allowed themselves to get caught up in a single bad race, they'd be out of work. You may not get paid to run, but you can adopt this mind-set. "Your running career isn't about one race," Bowes says. "Use your disappointment to fuel your next success." When setting your next goal, though, make it manageable. If you struggled to put in training miles for your last marathon, you might want to target a shorter distance. Also, to increase your chances of reaching your ultimate goal, set smaller goals along the way. If prerace jitters threw you off, race a few 5-Ks before your next big race so you learn to calm those butterflies. "Small victories help rebuild confidence after a disappointing experience," Cogan says.
5. Before Your Next Race MANAGE EXPECTATIONS
"I go into a race knowing full well that part of running is taking the chance that something will not go right," says Kim Maxwell, a coach in Stillwater, Minnesota. Also, before you toe the line again, remind yourself that your performance—good or bad—doesn't define you (see "Embrace the Process," below). Running is part of a healthy lifestyle; it can make you feel stronger, happier, and saner. Those benefits outshine any postrace glow.
If you're still mopey weeks after a race, consult a sports psychologist. Red flags of depression include lack of energy and motivation, appetite loss or overeating.
Embrace the Process
To enjoy your racing, sports psychologist Neal Bowes recommends being process-focused rather than outcome-focused. This allows you to see ups and downs as part of becoming a stronger athlete, rather than tying your self-worth to a time goal.
OUTCOME-FOCUSED: You focus on a highly ambitious, perhaps unrealistic, time goal.
PROCESS-FOCUSED: Your time goal is based on training runs and recent races. You also focus on mind-set, pacing, fueling, nutrition.
OUTCOME-FOCUSED: Your confidence as a runner is based on race times. You're driven by how people will view your achievements. [LF - ugh, this is so me! I think this is why I get so stressed out before the race!]
PROCESS-FOCUSED: Your confidence is based on your ability to execute a race plan, your development as a runner, and the role running plays in your life.
OUTCOME-FOCUSED: Your routine is strict—you train through pain and risk injury.
PROCESS-FOCUSED: When you notice a potential sign of trouble, you back off and give your body time to rest.
OUTCOME-FOCUSED: You measure race-day success in terms of times and placing. If you miss a goal time, you feel like a failure. [LF - ack! This is me again!]
PROCESS-FOCUSED: You measure race-day success based partly on times and placing, but also on the experience—what you can learn and how you can apply it to future races.
One person online made a comment about this article that I really liked, and applies to the paragraph above: