Recovering from a Race Gone Wrong

You trained like crazy, sacrificing time with family and friends, completing all your tough workouts, and loyally remembered to do the #extrasalt. Then, on race day, you were rewarded with a huge PR!

More likely, you did all that stuff (and more!), but something went dramatically wrong on race day: bad weather, gastrointestinal issues, starting too fast. Or it just wasn’t your day. No PR. There are a lot of opportunities for the wheels to come off the bus, especially at the longer distances. What next? How do you learn from a race gone wrong, without letting it sit under your skin or rob you of your confidence for months to come?

It can be hard to move on when things don’t go as planned but being able to do so can really help us in the weeks and months to come. It’s easy to get stuck in the doldrums after you feel like so much hard work has gone to “waste”. How we frame “bad races” also matters for our own self-perception. “Things didn’t go my way, but I still managed to do X, Y, and Z” is very different baggage to carry forward than “I worked hard but still had a terrible race because I’m such a lousy runner.”

How can we work to switch our minds from one frame to the other? I’m far from perfect on this one. My last marathon didn’t turn out the way I’d hoped (and trained for!) and it was not easy to reframe. Here are some methods that have worked for me.

Celebrate whatever victory the day brought you

No matter how much went wrong, something also went right. Maybe you missed your time goal, but still finished the race. Maybe you executed your fueling plan to the letter or still managed negative splits or made good decisions on the fly. Sometimes staying out of medical is a win! Note: here’s a good reason to have process goals as well as outcome goals. Find the positive in the day and honor it. Wear your medal. Wear your shirt. Have a beer or your beverage of choice. Go out to dinner with family and friends. If someone gives you flowers, accept them graciously.

No matter how badly things went, don’t pout

This is the flip side of the advice to celebrate victories. Think for a minute about the Olympic hockey player who took her silver medal off before they played her country’s anthem. The social media critics were over-eager to jump on her during her 15 minutes of fame, but that’s not the worst part of that incident. She has to live with that memory forever. That is not what you want.

Mourn the missed goal privately

Some kind of designated wallowing period is not just allowed but even helpful and recommended. You probably don’t want to cry at work the day after the race, but do share your disappointment with your trusted inner circle. It’s ok to feel frustrated and sad. It’s ok to feel jealous if other people had a great race. It’s not going to help you or anyone else if you to try to deny those feelings. I’m not suggesting you rage all over Instagram. But find some folks to share the sadness of this disappointment with you.

Shift perspective away from yourself

Speaking of people who might share in your disappointment: most runners don’t get to the starting line alone. Your partner or spouse, your family and friends, your coach or physical therapist – your team most likely helped get you to the starting line. They care about you, not about your finishing time. They were there for you before this race and they will be there for you afterwards as well. Have some faith and show some grace on their behalf.

When you’re ready, do a thorough post-race analysis

You probably want to do this after every race, actually. Figure out a process that works for you to sort out what went right and what went wrong. That might be talking the race through with your coach or your training partners or your running mentors. Maybe it’s writing a race report – you can share it or not, but writing about a race can be a helpful way to organize your thoughts. If a full-blown race report feels overwhelming, try “the wish and the star” approach – write down three things you wish had gone better and three things for which you deserve a gold star.

Don’t neglect recovery procedures

Whatever you normally do after a goal race, go ahead and do it. It’s easy to think you don’t “deserve” proper recovery because you didn’t get the race you wanted. If anything, the reverse is true. You need and deserve proper recovery more, not less, when race day goes badly. If you’ve been looking forward to a celebration meal or a post-race massage or a special bottle of champagne, by all means, enjoy. If your post-race recovery includes activities like meditation, yoga, journaling, time spent in nature – you should still do those things. If the reason the race went badly is an injury, all of this is even more true.

Take time to figure out the best next step for you

Lots of people will tell you the best post-race recovery for a race gone wrong is signing up for another race. I say, maybe. Maybe a new goal, a new training cycle, something to look forward to is just what the doctor ordered. But sometimes a break from serious training, just taking it easy for a bit, is even more what the doctor ordered. This one is pretty individual so know yourself and what would help you recover best.

Being disappointed when things don’t go how you wanted shows that you care and that’s not a bad thing. It’s kind of the price of entry to committing to the race. If you care enough to play, sometimes you’re going to lose and part of the game is figuring out how to handle that.

What do you do when you have a disappointing race? Do you have strategies that have helped you figure out how to re-frame race results you are unhappy with?

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4 comments

  1. My go-to method is kick rocks and then get over it (which yes, has on multiple occasions involved registering for another race). These are all great ideas/points though, there is so much we can take away and learn from the races gone wrong that it can only help us going forward.

  2. These are great ideas. One interesting thing I have noticed recently is our tendency to explain away a less than perfect race. Social media is filled with “excuses” the day after… it was too hot, too rainy, too windy, etc. Putting that kind of stuff out there just magnifies the negative and makes it harder to get through…. Another thing I have been thinking about is the “all or nothing” mentality that comes with training, especially marathons. Yes, it is a lot of work to train for a marathon! But remembering that the hard work always pays off somewhere down the line is important. Frankly, perspective seems to come with experience, and maybe we all need to get through the whiny excuses stage before we can focus on the process instead of the outcome. I know it took me years… and 10 marathons… to get even close to this point.

    1. I feel like I’m still working on this myself – focusing on process as well as outcome – especially with a high-stakes long-distance race like a marathon. What makes it high-stakes is all the time and effort that goes in, and if you’ve really put in the work, you have performance expectations to go along with it. Mentally, I know that one bad marathon is part of a (hopefully much) longer running career. But emotionally, ugh, I kick rocks and go through all the stages of grief. Then and only then do I do a thorough analysis of the race! I guess that’s normal.

      Also, not neglecting recovery is so important to remember. A bad race is still a race and it takes a lot out of you.

  3. lots of good stuff here! I think one thing I’d say is in general, it’s not a good idea to rush right into signing up for another race right away. Give it a couple of days and see how your body is recovering. People often underestimate the physical toll a race (especially a long one!) takes on your body, even if you don’t get the results you’re hoping for. A marathon ten minutes slower than you hoped will still really beat you up. I’ve seen so many people jump right into another race and then end up disappointed again. That being said, especially if you had to run easier due to stomach issues or weather etc, with a good recovery, and the right timing, I’ve seen friends pull off a great second race off the same build up if done smartly!