How to Deal with Post-Race Disappointment

Don't dwell on a bad run — get back on the horse and train (smartly) for the next one.

Photo via Jupiterimages/Brand X Pictures/Thinkstock

This past weekend, I had a very disappointing race. It wasn’t the worst I’ve ever run, but at the time, it sure felt like it. I was disappointed in my time for one thing (and the fact that I missed winning $300 by one second), but mostly, I was unhappy with the effort I’d put into it. I’d settled into a comfortable pace in the middle of the race and saved too much energy for the end. When I finished, all I could do was dwell on these negative aspects of the race. I sulked during my cool down jog and on the whole ride home. Since then though, with a little time to reflect, I’ve been able to put it all in a better perspective. The thing is, we all have subpar and even really bad days, but they needn’t be more than bumps in the road, and if you learn to take them the right way, they can even be learning experiences.

Although they can be difficult to remember in the heat of the moment, here are some tips I’ve come up with after 20 years of competitive running:

1. Don’t rush your cool down. Pro runners will often jog lightly for 10 t0 20 minutes immediately after a race to help stimulate recovery, which is a great idea. But often, after a bad race, they’ll push too hard during this cool down — all the emotion and desire to prove they can do better compels them to push the pace and relive all the disappointment. This just leads to greater fatigue and potentially injuries that will hamper future races. The cool down should be exactly that, a time to jog and let the body (and temper) cool down. Don’t run too far or too fast. There are plenty more days to run long and hard.

2. Don’t over-train. It’s easy to get discouraged after a poor run and think you just need to train harder to get in better shape. This usually just leads to fatigue and staleness, which in turn leads to yet more poor performances in future races. I’ve seen people get into long cycles of bad races interspersed with over-training — and the worst thing about it is that they’re working so hard to run very poorly.

3. Evaluate your training program. Wait a few days or even a week before evaluating your training program. The passing of time will drain away the emotions, allowing for objective assessment of your training. Sometimes a bad day is just a bad day. Consider the weather you’d run in (hot, cold, humid, windy, etc.), the course (lots of turns can slow you down even on a flat course), a lack of sleep, poor nutrition, an illness, or just a fluke. Then consider your strengths and weaknesses in training and in the race. If you were breathing hard, but your legs felt great, you might need more tempo runs or long intervals with short rest. If your legs were tired, but your breathing was fine, then maybe you need a more varied training plan or better recovery plan (more sleep, better eating, slower runs on your easy days). A tricky one is if you didn’t have a good finishing sprint. Sometimes that has to do with not enough speed, but in the majority of cases, I’ve actually found it to be an indication of too little endurance: you were just too tired at the end to sprint at full speed. If you don’t feel comfortable assessing your own training, you can ask a friend, join a running club, or hire a running coach.

4. Get on with it. After the initial frustration, followed by the calm assessment, the only thing left to do is get back on the horse. Go for some easy runs, then start your training program back up. I don’t recommend racing the next weekend, but put another race on your calender. If you just did a 5k or 10k, you can race again within two to three weeks. If you raced a half-marathon you might need a month or more to be fully recovered and ready for peak performance. In the case of a marathon, you probably want to wait three to six months to be fully ready, or you risk continuing a cycle of poor performances. The good news is that you can do some shorter races to stay motivated in the meantime.

I hope this helps put a bad day in perspective. I know I’m feeling better. I’m going to do some moderate intervals today and you’ll see me back at the races in a couple weeks.