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?