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Q: I had some bad races to end the season, and I am not motivated to do anything right now. How do you get closure and move on after a mediocre season?
Athletes often struggle mentally with a “letdown” period after a big event. Most triathletes experience a post-Ironman funk, whether they had a great day or a disaster. This letdown is only exacerbated when a season ends in disappointment. Low motivation at the end of the year is completely normal and even healthy for a while. It is necessary to take a break at the end of the year to let your body recover. Rest is just as important for your motivation as for your physical recovery, but a mental break doesn’t involve sitting on the couch for three months. If the off-season turns into an extended pity party, it’s time to take a look at what went wrong and learn how to let it go.
Reframe the experience
A result itself is just a number, neither good nor bad; it is how you perceive the result that counts. Early in my career I would have been thrilled just to not get lapped in an ITU World Cup; toward the end I would be disappointed with fourth place because I had narrowly missed the podium. Objectively the second result was much better, but my expectation had changed and, along with it, the satisfaction I received from a certain placing.
Setting a high standard is a positive tool when working toward a goal; it can motivate you to work hard and achieve a new level. If you find yourself depressed after a disappointing season, shift your standards. So you didn’t achieve exactly what you had hoped; instead, focus on the improvements you did make. Think back to when you first started competing in triathlon. Remind yourself of those first few weeks after the off-season break when training felt slow and awkward. No matter how many years I’m in the sport, I’m always amazed at how long a three-hour ride feels in January and how short it feels in October. Appreciate how far you have come and acknowledge the gains you have made.
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Be honest with yourself
Look over your training log and compare what you actually did with what you intended to do. Did you complete all the training that you should have? Was there an injury that prevented you from maximizing your fitness leading up to the race? Were there outside stresses that prevented you from recovering properly? It helps to take an honest look at your preparation leading up to the season and see where things went wrong. If you have a coach, now is the time to get together and analyze your training plan to see what might be improved upon.
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Chalk it up to a bad day
We all have bad races; even the best in the world have “off days” for no apparent reason. Even if you followed your training plan to the letter and rested and fueled like a pro, the inexplicable can still happen. During one of my best seasons I beat a stacked field for a big win one week and finished 48th the next. We all have a tendency to be hard on ourselves after a dud race, but even I couldn’t doubt my fitness and preparation. The off day had nothing to do with fitness. In this case it was travel, jet lag and an extended taper that had just left me flat. Instead of beating yourself up, chalk it up to a bad day and move on. Coaches and veterans of the sport have been trying to figure out the race taper for years—they have yet to come up with a perfect formula. Olympians spend four years training for a single event and sometimes get it wrong. No one can argue that they were not fit and ready to race; they just fell a little short on race day. It happens.
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Change your routine
Feel free to take a week or two of complete rest, but past that it’s time to get active again, taking into consideration that the focus of this time is still recovery. I find that the best way to recharge is to change up my routine. Use the fall to do something completely different that will still maintain fitness. Mountain biking and trail running are two great alternatives that provide great skills and fitness while taking your mind away from time trials and track workouts. Try cross-country skiing, hockey, yoga, squash—pretty much anything that will get your heart rate up a few times a week that is unrelated to swimming, biking or running.
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Sign up for another race
Committing to another event takes the emphasis off of the last race and gives you a new goal to target. It should be a long-term goal; the idea is not to try to salvage a season by adding more races. Instead, a firm deadline to be back on the start line will give you a future goal to focus on instead of dwelling on the past.
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Reflect on the journey no matter the result
No one is involved in triathlon solely for the health and fitness benefits—20 minutes on the StairMaster is cheaper and easier. We love the sport for a variety of reasons: the social aspects and the training camaraderie, the chance to race in amazing destinations, or for the bragging rights of being a triathlete. Remind yourself of the reasons you do the sport—it’s rarely just for the splits. Think about the cool stuff you do because you race and the great people you meet along the way.
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It’s only triathlon
Sometimes we all need a reminder that sport is for fun and fitness, and a bad race is always better than no race. It is completely understandable to be disappointed after a poor result, especially when so much time and effort has gone into the preparation. Remember that no one really cares where you place except you. Or maybe your mom, but she loves you anyway.
Olympian Samantha McGlone (@samanthamcglone) is a former 70.3 world champion and was runner-up at the 2007 Ironman World Championship. She lives, trains and attends medical school in Tucson, Ariz.