‘Cause you had a bad (race), you’re taking one down. You sing a sad song just to turn it around. You say you don’t know. You tell me, “don’t lie”. You work at a smile, and you go for a (run).
You had a bad (race). Or something like that…
Now what? This is the hardest part about running. It’s all on you and what your body did, and you can’t immediately try again to see if things change. Most of us train for 3-6 months for any particular race. You can be totally trained and ready but still have the wheels come off. I promise you, I have been there. I have DNFed a race (Did Not Finish). A DNF is about the lowest point for a runner or endurance athlete because we pride ourselves on pushing through even when it’s tough (because that’s literally the whole premise of our activities). The most important thing to do after a bad run is to LEARN from it. Your world is not over, but if you do not learn from a bad experience, you will repeat it over and over again.
Step 1 of things you do after a bad race is nothing for 24-48 hours. I call this the 48 hour rule. Time gives clarity while the emotions of the moment do not. Your head will swirl with questions and explanations as to “why” things just happened. Some of these thoughts will be very valid and some of these thoughts will not. It can be healthy to write some things down so that you can go back and reflect on them after you give yourself some time to calm down. The time also lets you think more fully about other things that could have played a role in the bad race. You need time to look at all aspects of the run even beyond the obvious. There may be some big things that you need to change like pace, hydration/nutrition, gear, or even your training. More than once I have thought of things in the days after that I could not focus on right after the race. If you have sport/gps/smart watch, go back and look at some of the data you get. Look at your mile splits, your heart rate, and your step cadence. If you aren’t sure what to do with that information, find someone who does. A coach, an experienced runner, or even a running trained physical therapist.
Step 2 after a bad run is to take your swirling thoughts and give validity to the most obvious ones. This part isn’t rocket science. Oftentimes your first or gut instinct is right. If your first thought was “I started way too fast”, then I am willing to bet that you did, in fact, start too fast. Go with the gut and then think of 1 simple and practical way you can adjust for the future. For reference, here are the two most common reasons for a bad race.
I do not know a single runner who has not started too fast at least once in their lives. I do it too often. There are a few ways to combat this in life. My most used is to start with a pace group slower than my goal marathon pace. I run the first 5K with them to let the adrenaline work itself out and then I can speed up just a little and get into a groove with my own pace (pace groups can start too fast too, and even if they do you are likely at goal pace instead of a lot faster). Most sport and smart watches today let you set pace alerts, which tells the watch to beep at you if you are going too fast or too slow. I have never used this, but I know people who have and swear by it.
Another big culprit of a bad run is the weather. Most of the time this comes from a sudden change in weather since a lot of races are in the spring or fall. You train with X conditions for months and suddenly the opposite happens on race day. Can you change this? Ehhhh, sort of. You can’t change the weather, but you can change how you run in those conditions or what you wear. Going from winter to spring, your race will likely be warmer than most of your training runs, so try running in the afternoon some to begin acclimating to the hotter temperatures. If you are going summer to fall, you may want to try running in the early mornings/night to get used to the cold and practice your clothing layers for race day. Being diligent with running outside also helps. Going to the treadmill anytime it’s windy or sprinkling outside does not let you adjust to facing elements that may be there on race day.
Step 3 is to begin implementing and making the changes you feel are necessary. I can’t be as specific on your action steps here because it will completely depend on why and what you are changing. We already discussed ways to slow the pace and some basic ways to prepare for variable weather. If the hills killed you at a race, add more hill runs into your training. If the back half of the race was a lot harder for you, you can try adding workouts where you run negative splits (running faster at the end than at the beginning of the run). Maybe you wore some different shoes and need more practice running in your race shoes. “Race Practice” is always a good idea: where you practice the nutrition, hydration, and clothing choices on some training runs a few weeks or months before race day. We can go on and on here. If you have more questions, see suggestions above about who to ask.
Step 4 is to get your confidence back. After you sufficiently recover, get back on the roads or treadmill and don’t even worry about the distance or the time. Run for fun. No pressure, just enjoying running for a bit. Beyond that, a favorite of mine is to find a local 5K to run. These are shorter and quicker than most goal races. This can be the perfect way to go out, relax and run (typically there is nothing on the line here). This key point here of just enjoying it, is often the key to a successful race day. My best runs were on runs where I was just relaxed and I wasn’t trying to run anything special. My (current) marathon PR was at Chicago, and after stopping twice for the restroom in the first half of the run, I was frustrated and “gave up” on the run. What happened was I stopped stressing over my watch. I stopped pressing and just had fun in the big city with the crowds and scenery. At mile 20 I checked my watch for the first time in 7 miles and realized I was doing pretty well, but still kept it relaxed. Finally at 24 I looked again and thought “oh wow. I may run my best ever race here!” It was 100% an accident, but you would be surprised how many runners have pretty similar stories about their best races. Keep the pressure off as you go into your next goal race and things will go better.
‘Cause you had a bad run, you should look at practical things to change and alter. You should ask others for their opinions on what you could have done better. You should also get back to running. You can’t change what already happened, only what you will do in the future. As the baboon Rafiki from Lion King said as he smacked Simba in the head, “it doesn’t matta! It is in de past!”