Why a bad race might make you more successful in the long run

The four-time Olympic gold medalist shares his secrets on recovering and going after your goals all over again.

If anyone knows how to overcome a tough break and get back to the top, it’s Britain’s Mo Farah.

Three years ago at the Olympics in Rio, about midway through the 10,000 meters, then-training partner Galen Rupp accidentally tripped him. Farah hit the track—but then sprang back up, almost immediately returned to the lead pack, and went on to win gold. A week later, he won gold again in the 5,000 meters, making him a two-time repeat Olympic champion.

This October 13, he’ll return to defend his title at the Chicago Marathon. He won last year, and set a new European record, with a time of 2:05:11.

But there’s a chance that first, he’ll make a pit stop on the other side of the world and put his talent at the turnaround to good use again.

As the reigning 10,000-meter world champ, Farah has an automatic spot at the IAAF World Championships in Doha. He’d said earlier this year he was done with the track and wouldn’t claim it. But last month, he hashtagged an Instagram post #doha10K, raising speculation.

That race would be October 6—seven days and more than 7,000 miles away from Chicago. In a recent phone call with Runner’s World, Farah wouldn’t say either way whether he’ll go for the double.

“My main focus to turn up to Chicago and defend my title there,” he said. “That’s all we’re thinking about at the minute; we’re not thinking about anything else.

But if anyone can execute two stellar races a week apart, it’s Sir Mo, who was knighted in 2017. Here’s his advice for processing one performance and moving on to the next.

Don’t hide your disappointment…

Farah doesn’t sugarcoat suboptimal performances. He went to the London Marathon this year aiming to win, but came in fifth with a time of 2:05:39—incredible for many athletes, but not what he’d expected.

“It was average, I guess,” he said. “I wanted to be better.”

He didn’t shy away from his dissatisfaction, either in interviews done immediately postrace or months later. “It’s good to be honest,” he said. “It didn’t go as well as I wanted; I was disappointed with the results.”

But don’t let it define you.

Though Farah holds himself to high standards, he also knows every runner—and indeed, every human—has off days. “Having a bad race doesn’t make you a bad athlete,” he said. “It just means you’ve got to come back and do it again, that’s all.”

Indeed, what makes a difference in your long-term success is not any single failure or setback, but what you do next. “Get over that as quick as you can and move on and see what you can do as the next step, the next phase,” he said. “That’s always the key.”

Instead, take a lesson.

The best way to push forward? Take a good, hard look at what went well and what didn’t, and use it to guide your preparation in the future.

“I’ve had a long career on the track,” he said. “It wasn’t about one race, it’s about learning from each race, seeing what you did wrong, what you could learn, how you can improve.”

Now, he’s applying the same strategy to the marathon. In London, he felt strong until about halfway. By 30 Km’s —and especially in the last 3K—he faded in the wake of Eliud Kipchoge’s surges (the world record holder won the race in 2:02:37).

“Sometimes in the marathon it comes down to the last hundred meters, sometimes it comes down to the last two miles, you just never know,” he said.

As a result, he and coach Gary Lough are not only keeping his mileage high—around 225 Km’s per week—they’re also incorporating a wide range of types of workouts, from short, fast intervals on fatigued legs to slower miles. That way, he’ll be ready for whatever might come his way over 42 Km’s. (Farah’s sharing much of that training on social media and on his YouTube channel, where he’s been posting a new video every Monday.)

Reflect on your hard work.

Whether it’s after a tough moment during a race—like his fall—or a disappointing outcome, Farah rebuilds his confidence and motivation by reminding himself of all he’s already invested.

When he hit the track in Rio, “I thought of all the training I’d done leading up to that race,” he said. “Sometimes as an athlete, it’s not about just that race. It’s all the work you put in to get to that race.” With that on his mind, he knew he had no choice but to get up, persevere, and fight to the finish.

Stay connected to joy.

When you’re pushing hard toward your next goal, you might have to make some sacrifices. Right now, for instance, Farah is training in Flagstaff, Arizona—away from his wife Tania and four children at home in Great Britain.

The distance is challenging—but he FaceTimes with them regularly. “That’s what motivates me to be better,” he said.

While he’s at camp, he makes sure to enjoy time with teammates like Bashir Abdi and Abdi Abdirahman. They help each other not only on the track—when one of them has a tough day, the others push him along—but also off it.

“It’s really important that you have good people around you and good training partners that you can have a laugh with, enjoy, and go out for a meal,” he said. “The more laughs you can have the more easy you are.”

That way, you’ll be less likely to overthink things, either dwelling too much on the past or fretting about the future.

Above all, let your challenges fuel you.

“You’re always more happy when things go well; it’s a great feeling,” he said. But if running a perfect race were easy, some of the thrill would likely fade away.

The move from the track to the marathon has amplified Farah’s appetite for competition. “In the 5K, 10K, you can do a race and you know what went wrong, what you could improve and you can come back in two, three weeks time and run another race and get it right,” he said. “In the marathon, it’s longer. You have to wait for six months…it’s a long time to wait, but I think it makes you more hungry and more focused.”

Regardless of whether he heads to Doha, he’ll have both ups and downs to draw on as he returns to the Windy City. “I want to come back to Chicago and see what I can do and defend my title,” he said, “and take that experience that I had in London and put it out there.”

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