We’ve all been there. You train for months, do the taper properly and arrive at race day in tip top condition. You feel great on the start line and set off enthusiastically. However, a couple of hours later you feel like you are limping over the finish line, seven minutes outside your estimated time, feeling cross and dejected by what just happened. It can be a familiar tale and a disheartening one too, so here are some of the strategies you can use to help you recover from a bad race.
One of the first things you need to do is put things firmly into context. Yes the race didn’t go as well as you had hoped and no, you didn’t come anywhere near the PB (PR) you were looking for. But you got over the finish line when you weren’t feeling your best, so give yourself some credit for that. You also burnt a ton of calories and you know you are in good running shape (even if your time didn’t do your fitness justice). Taking the positives out of sport, even when it feels like a giant negative, is one of the most important preliminary steps as you recover from a bad experience. Remember to be kind to yourself and rather than focusing on the negatives, think carefully about what might have gone wrong.
It’s important to figure out why you had such a bad run, so one of the first things to do is to examine your nutrition and hydration strategies. Did you eat enough breakfast or indeed enough carbs in the build up to the race? What were you drinking during the run? Was it enough or did it disagree with you in any way? Did you get enough sleep the night before? Even though you felt fine at the start, perhaps tiredness contributed to your fatigue and inability to perform to your usual level. Did you get your race pace wrong by getting caught up in the moment and going off too quickly?
Learning from mistakes is a huge part of running, as is getting to know your body and controlling how it performs in certain situations. When you can clearly identify a weakness, it gives you something to build on and improve. Sometimes a poor performance can be the result of a tiny mistake and when you realise that, it is easy to fix and move on.
But also remember that sometimes a disappointing performance can be a result of circumstances out of your control (weather, conditions, incidents during the race etc), so rationalise that and then move on.
Even if there is no smoking gun in terms of identifying a specific reason why you had a bad race, it might be a good idea to think about making a change or two. The old adage about doing what you’ve always done and getting what you’ve always got is particularly true of running. Runners are creatures of habit and one of the joys of the sport is the knowledge that if you follow a plan meticulously, it will get you where you need to go. That said though, there are times when a certain type of preparation just doesn’t work for you.
If you are a runner who keeps preparing a certain way and keeps experiencing the same disappointing results, change might just be the answer. That can mean anything from trying different routes on your regular runs, to fundamentally transforming your approach to training. What that change looks like is up to you, but don’t be afraid to do things differently. There is always a reason or several of them for poor performance and sometimes those reasons will necessitate only a minor alteration and sometimes a radical change of approach.
Talking to other runners and sharing your experiences can be hugely informative and comforting. You will quickly find that other people have suffered exactly the same experiences as you. That could be anything from a series of poor training runs (we’ve all had those) to a spectacular let down in a big race. Learning from the mistakes and reactions of others is a brilliant extra piece of research you can easily do. How about chatting to someone on your next training run?
Yes, get out with a running buddy as soon as you can and start to erase the memory of a poor run by replacing it with a positive experience. It will probably be hugely frustrating that you can produce a terrific training run mere days after a shocking race, but at least it will be a reminder of what a good runner you really are.
One phrase regularly lurking at the back of a runner’s mind is unrealistic expectations. Be honest in the wake of a disappointing race and ask whether a 90 minute half marathon was ever realistic? Had you been showing that kind of form in training or was it never really possible? Bad races can actually be just a good race seen through the filter of unrealistic expectation. If that is the case, then change your targets. Reset your goals and focus on what is achievable.
For instance, instead of slogging away for a marathon time that isn’t realistic right now, how about dropping back to running quicker half marathons for a while? That will make you feel good about your running again and also help in the long term, towards achieving that original marathon time.
If however, when you’ve analyzed everything, you conclude that your target was achievable, perhaps all you need to do is tweak certain aspects of your race and you will get there. Remember though that honesty is definitely required on this one.