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Ask any Olympian about their experiences competing at the top of his or her sport and it’s a good bet they’ll not only mention the highs of their career, but also the lows.
Even elite athletes are human beings and being human means having to deal with setbacks. For endurance athletes, whether you’re an elite athlete or an aspiring age-group competitor, lows usually come in the form of a bad race or terrible workout that fell far short of expectations. It’s when we let these bad experiences fester that training and racing can go from something that brings us joy and peace to something that makes us feel irritated, stressed or even depressed.
Next time you have a race or workout that doesn’t go as planned, employ these tried-and-true tips from elite-level athletes to move past an unplanned setback.
1. Cut yourself a break.
If you fail to run a desired time in a race or don’t hit your planned splits in a track workout, ask yourself two important questions:
— Is it really the end of the world?
— Does this setback mean I’ll never run a good race again?
The resounding answer to both of these questions is: No, of course not! American Olympian and champion ultrarunner Magdalena Lewy Boulet tells the runners she coaches to put it all in perspective. “Remember that everybody has bad races and the fact that you have bad races make the good races that much more satisfying,” she says.
Clint Verran, a four-time Olympic Trials Marathon qualifier, takes it a step further by advising his athletes to not take a bad race personally. “I try to make them understand that that race is not who they are,” he says. “It is not necessarily indicative of the work that they’ve put in or their current fitness level.”
Heed this expert advice. Put a positive spin on that mental narrative around your running and remind yourself that occasional setbacks are a normal stop on the path to achieving something great.
2. Learn from the experience.
Did you DNF your last race? It’s important to do a bit of introspection afterward.
Why did you drop out? Peel back the proverbial onion to try and understand the root causes of your specific setback. Ultrarunning ace Nikki Kimball, a three-time champion of the Western States 100, suggests looking at a number of variables—changes in nutrition, inadequate rest, changes in equipment (hydration packs, shoes, etc.), illness, injury, mood and stress—that may have led to you calling it quits before reaching the finish line. Specific to stress, she points out that external factors like a bad day at work, a fight with your significant other, or the death or illness of a loved one, can affect your running and shouldn’t be overlooked. “All of these life stressors affect running, just as they do performance in other areas,” notes Kimball.
Once the dust has settled on your collapsed performance, sit down and write out at least three takeaways. What did you learn? Maybe you didn’t hydrate properly or perhaps you didn’t give yourself enough recovery leading up to your race. Keep a journal of these lessons learned and study it when it’s time to begin a new phase of training. Lewy-Boulet says runners should “focus on their controllables such as sleep, nutrition and hydration” and set realistic goals heading into your next training cycle.
“Of course we try our best to run our best all the time,” says Verran. “But part of the learning process is to make mistakes and learn from them. We are always pushing the envelope as a competitive runner and it is inevitable you’ll step over that line at some point.”
3. Find the positives.
There can be positive elements to a bad race, even if they’re not obvious immediately afterward. Once the dust settles—and it may take a few days or even a couple weeks—ask yourself: What went well? Perhaps the first 20 miles of your DNF marathon went great until your legs shut down with 10K to go. Even though a too-fast first mile might have cost you a PR in your last 5K, you experienced what it felt like to be in the hunt for the age-group win. Process these experiences, learn what you need to do better next time and begin the process of implementing those changes leading up to your next race. Most importantly: remember the fun you did have leading up to and/or during parts of the race—that’s why you signed up in the first place!
“An athlete needs to be able to look at what she could have done better, but she also needs to acknowledge what she did well,” says Kimball. “Looking only at the negative can lead to feelings of failure and frustration. When one does this too often, the athlete forgets that the primary reason humans start sports is that sports are fun. When I get lost in analyzing reasons for a poor performance, I lose the fun of running.”