Bouncing back from a bad race

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.

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I know I’m still as fit as when I ran 17:15 without the perfect race, if not fitter

Those of you who know me probably know I don’t often run back to back bad races. When I have a bad race, it usually is followed by a very good race. Sometimes, after a bad race, I surprise myself with what I do next.

After having a rough day at Al’s Run, someone emailed me asking about this. Essentially, the question was how do I keep focus and keep training hard after a bad race?

That’s a good question. I see some people go into a downward spiral after a bad race. Personally, I can’t remember many instances where I went into such a spiral. I typically bounce back pretty well after a bad effort. But why?

I think there are a few reasons and I’d like to break them down in the hopes that I can help someone else bounce back from a race.

1) You’re as good as your best race: One of my past coaches, I believe Coach Hall at UW-Stout, once told me after I had a bad race you’re as good as your best race, not as bad as your worst race. Good races are the true indication of your fitness, bad races usually are a result of something else. You can’t race beyond your fitness but you can race short of your fitness for many reasons.

This is about keeping your confidence. It’s easy when you have a bad race to lose confidence but you shouldn’t. You’re still as fast as your best race. If you ran an 18:00 5K a month ago and you ran a 19:00 5K today, unless something drastic happened in the past month, you’re still capable of at least close to 18:00. Believe in that and you can bounce back to 18:00 or even better.

2) Know what went wrong and fix what you have control over: When I have a bad race and write the report on it, I’m not shy about going through the race just how I do in my mind. That includes asking myself what went wrong. I’ve been told I’m just making excuses when I do that but, to me, it’s not about making excuses. It’s about understanding the reasons so I can accept what I didn’t have control over and fix what I did have control over.

For example, in my Al’s Run report, I mentioned three things. The wind, the confusion and frustration with my registration mix-up and the oncoming head cold. Next time out, no matter what happens with my registration or anything else like that, I’m going to try to keep calm and not waste any more energy than necessary or let it take me out of my focus. If people around me are sick, I’m not going to quarantine myself but I’ll take every precaution reasonable to avoid getting sick myself. As for the wind, I’ll adjust as well as I can and accept that I can’t control everything.

3) Use it as motivation: Thinking back to my junior year of high school, I had a horrible race at the Conference cross country meet. I went out harder than I should have and faded to a finish well short of where I should have been. My bad race probably cost our team a conference title and definitely cost me an all-conference honor.

A week later, at the Sectional meet, I had one of the best races of my life. After barely hanging on to a top 20 finish at Conference, I finished 7th or 8th in a race with I believe all the teams from our conference plus many more teams, several of which were very good teams. I was a part of our team going from finishing second at Conference to a surprise second place finish at Sectionals, beating I believe two teams ranked in the top 10 of the state and qualifying for the State meet.

How did I make such a dramatic turnaround? After taking some time to be furious at myself for the stupid mistake I made, I refocused. I wanted to make it up to myself and my teammates. I didn’t get myself nervous with "I have to…" kind of statements but I did everything I could to ensure I would have the best race possible. I kept a level head in the preparation but made sure I did everything as perfectly as possible. Then, once the race started and I made sure I didn’t get out too fast in the first half mile, I channeled the frustration of the prior week into the determination to do everything in my power to help my teammates. I felt like I could have run through a brick wall in that race. I was so focused, so determined to do my absolute best, that nothing was going to get in my way.

To me, that’s the biggest key to bouncing back after a bad race. Keep a level head in your preparation for the next race, keeping that frustration there not as motivation to do something stupid but as motivation to get all your preparations right. On race day, keep it around early on to again do everything right. Then, when it’s time to let loose and run your hardest, let it drive you.

I know some would say you should think positive and not hold on to those negative feelings but I think, channeled properly, that frustration from a bad race can be an excellent motivator. Don’t be afraid to use it.

What do you think?

I know there are some aspects I didn’t cover here. I’d like to hear your thoughts. What do you do to bounce back from a bad race? Do you use the ideas I mentioned above? Do you do something else?

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