Breaking Bad Races

If “highway to hell” is an apt description of your last race, when your pace slowed to a crawl and you weren’t sure you’d finish, you might want to consider the perspective of British poet John Keats, who called failure the “highway to success.”

Although it may seem contradictory (or crazy) to celebrate a flop, many experts agree that losses can fuel future wins. “A bad race is an opportunity to gather information, learn and improve,” says Ralph Heath, a runner and author of Celebrating Failure: The Power of Taking Risks, Making Mistakes and Thinking Big. “You need to embrace failure as part of the process.”

Turning a negative into a positive may seem impossible, especially when your war wounds still sting. But the sooner you accept the past and learn from it, the faster you can move on to a PB-filled future. Here’s how to recover.



Allan M. Due, 56, was new to running when he started training for the 2012 Marine Corps Marathon. He followed a training schedule, lost 13 kilograms, and felt prepared to break four hours on race morning. But he started too fast and then his left knee started to hurt. “It started with a twinge and got worse until it felt like a dagger,” he says. He had to walk the last 14 kilometres, finishing in 5:05. “I was devastated for days.”

After a bad race, many of us endure disappointment and, yes, even devastation, says Gloria Balague, Ph.D., a sports psychologist. “Some runners get highly emotional because they see it as a personal failing,” she says. “If you’re invested in your running and don’t get the expected return, these feelings of disappointment are natural and healthy to express. It shows your commitment and passion.”

This initial grieving stage may last a few hours or a few days, but it’s not helpful if it lingers. “Prolonged grieving lowers self-confidence and motivation,” Balague says. “When you are unable to constructively evaluate what happened and point to a solution, it may signal some underlying emotional issues.” Balague recommends pinpointing the source of your anguish. Are you embarrassed by how others view your performance, ashamed that shortcuts in your training caused it, or upset with Mother Nature for unleashing a heat wave? “Whatever it is, isolating the source will help you work through your feelings and regain your emotional balance.”



Once the cursing and crying subside, it’s time to examine your misadventure. “Every race is a learning experience, so whatever happened is really okay,” says Cory Nyamora, a running coach and clinical psychologist. The first step is to separate what you couldn’t control (poor weather, illness, a devious pothole) from what you could (uneven pacing, inadequate training, unrealistic goal), and make peace with the first and focus on rectifying the second. For example, if you started too fast, you can plan to run with a pace group at your next event or position yourself further back in the pack. If you slowed in your final kilometres, you can aim to do more race-pace workouts in your next round of training, or you can adjust your goals if your attempted pace was too ambitious.

Instead of analysing all of this in your own head, Nyamora recommends going over the details of your race with someone else – ideally an experienced runner or coach. Writing about the experience in a journal or blog can also be helpful. “Your internal thoughts can be overly critical, but when you write about an experience, you tend to be less negative and more objective,” he says.



When Due’s disappointment eased, he signed up for another marathon and found an online coach, who gave Due a strength routine to rehab his knee and a training schedule that included speedwork to increase his odds of breaking four hours.

Though signing up for another event, as Due did, is a good way to move on, Nyamora says it’s important to think of the next race as separate and independent from the first – and not as a “do-over.” “That mindset will make you feel extra pressure at your next event, and that could hurt your performance,” he says. And so Nyamora encourages runners to space out the events; don’t rush to race again the following weekend. This is especially critical if you’re a half-marathoner or marathoner. You might be eager to redeem yourself, but if your muscles aren’t fully recovered, you could be setting yourself up for another bad race experience. (The rule of thumb is that you need one day of recovery for every kilometre raced.)

You also need to consider the emotional toll the bad race took on you. “If you’re feeling desperate to prove something to yourself or others, or you’re still angry about the last race, wait,” Nyamora says. “It might be best to take a break from racing until you feel emotionally recovered and really miss it.”

Four months after Marine Corps, Due ran the Cowtown Marathon in 3:59, nailing his goal time and lowering his PB by more than an hour. “I felt elated and proud that I’d picked myself up, refocused, and accomplished the goal, and grateful that I’d redeemed myself. The success wouldn’t have been so sweet without the initial failure.”

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