What to do when a race doesn’t go as planned


How you handle a disappointing race is important.  How you bounce back will impact your training and your mentality entering you next training cycle and race. Let’s be real, you are not going to PR at every race.  Newbies can make a lot of fast growth for a while, but eventually runners are going to hit a plateau or have a bad race. There will be things that you can control and mistakes made along the way. Sometimes there are things that are going to be out of your control. How you respond, I believe, greatly defines you as a runner. Good or bad, all races are a learning opportunity.  Races allow us to reflect on our last training cycle, race day preparations and race strategy.


Races will point out flaws in training, preparations and strategy. These are all things we can control and can learn from.  It may not always be fun, but disappointing races are a part of the process to growing as a runner.  Don’t make excuses for those errors, make improvements. There are things you cannot control that can negatively impact your race, as well. Some things like weather and crowded courses/water stations are things you will often know about a head of time and can prepare for.  With weather, you need to be realistic about your goals ahead of time and give yourself some leeway.  A marathon completed in 70 degree weather is not going to be as fast as a race completed in 50 degree weather.  You need to adjust your time goals and allow yourself some wiggle room in your goal.  Larger races often have crowded starts and water stations, preparing ahead of time by carrying a small water bottle,so you can skip an aid station or two and practicing negative splits are a great way to overcome this potential issue.  There are also unexpected things that have happened in races, and the only thing you can do is shake it off.  Just last year, right before the Boston registration window closed, it seemed like one issue after another was impacting runners’ races.  They had pacers that lead groups off course and a train that stopped runners during the race. That sucks!  There was literally nothing the runners could do. All they could do is shake it off and move on. While I was working as an elementary teacher, our counselor would end the morning announcements everyday with the quote, “make it a great day, or not, the choice is yours.”  Which is very true in this situation. We cannot always control what happens to us. We can however choose how we respond. I imagine there was a wide variety of runners impacted in those races and how each individual managed was an individual choice that impacted their future training and races and probably general attitude in their daily lives shortly after the race.

There are some pre-race planning things you can do to help prevent a disappointing race, or at least allow yourself to handle the situation with grace.  The first thing that runners need to do is know the race.  If it is a goal race that you have trained for you need to be familiar with the course. I’m not saying memorize every detail of the course and turn by turn directions of an out of town race. Knowing some key logistics, spacing of the water stations and what fueling options are available along the way are important.  I recently found a website bibrave.com that is a great resource when learning about upcoming races. Reviewers tell about their experiences and gave tips.  I have made a point to pay it forward and review races I have completed. Another thing runners should consider is giving yourself an A, B and C goal.  Of course we all want to PR but does the PR define the complete success and failure of your race?  Completing a marathon is an excellent accomplishment in itself. So have multiple goals and keep adjusting as the race continues.  Being able to make adjustments mid-race can greatly impact your overall experience, no matter what happens.

This may be an unpopular opinion, or at least one that runners don’t like to discuss.  Sometimes DNF (did not finish) is the best choice.  Runners, or at least a large majority of runners, are stubborn.  They don’t want to feel like quitters.   Listen, if you have an injury that could be made substantially worse by finishing, you need to stop!  There will be other races and pushing through only to find you are wrecked for the next 6 months is not worth it.  I had a friend running Grandmas that was injured, he wasn’t going to make any time goals so he pulled out. Now he is training for Boston and he is smashing speed workouts and killing some high-mileage weeks. He recently mentioned how glad he was that he dropped out. He wasn’t sure he would even be ready to run yet, or what running would look like if he had not dropped out.  Another example of when a DNF may be your better choice is if you are chasing a qualifying time.  A buddy of mine was trying to get a Boston Qualifier five weeks before registration closed.  Like many 2016 races, the one he signed up for and trained for ended up being hotter than usual.  When he reached half way, he was already picking up (slowing down) time and by mile 16 he was completely gassed. He didn’t feel like this was an accurate reflection of his abilities and training so he dropped out.  This was a smart choice.  Marathons are hard on the body and had he pushed through another 10 miles, he would have had a longer recovery process.  My friend bounced back pretty quickly, and he was able to recover and do some basic maintenance training.  He signed up for a race a week before the registration closed and ended up getting a BQ-5 (he ran 5 minutes faster than his qualifying standard).  This was a smart, well-disciplined runner that will now be able to run his goal race in Boston 2017.

Immediately after the race you’re allowed to be disappointed.  You may istock-disappointed-racehave put in months of work and sacrificed things along the way.  Give yourself permission to be disappointed.  Do not, however, hang out in pity-town.  It does not fix anything.  If traveling, focus on recovery and enjoy your vacation.  Don’t let a race ruin your opportunity to explore and enjoy a new place.  This will also give you some time away from the emotions of the race.  When you return you will be able to reflect on the race more effectively.  If you are local, give yourself 24 hours to be a bit down.  Then, it’s time to put on your big-girl (or big-boy) britches and move on.

A week after the race is a good time to begin to recap the race and reflect on all aspects of the race.  All races are a learning opportunity.  Reflect on what went well and not so well.  Do not fixate on the negative.  Every race is like a puzzle, there are so many pieces that must come together to make a bigger picture.  When people ask you about the race, try not to make ridiculous excuses.  I had a friend who was hoping for a 5k PR and didn’t reach it.  When I asked him how the race went, his response was “it was a hard course, it was almost all flat with no turns,” the next race the same friend told me, “ I got two miles in at goal pace and then decide to tempo.” Don’t do this.  It is okay to acknowledge that you didn’t reach your goal.  It happens to the best runners. Recognize the opportunity to learn and grow from the race, and be careful not to have a knee-jerk reaction. I have seen many runners begin to over train after bad races. This usually does not end up helping in reaching your goal, but instead leads to further disappointment, injuries and burn-out.

Do you have a bad race experience? What do you like to do, to help you get over it?


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Published by RunCanvas

Avid Runner, mother, wife and teacher. On a wonderful journey, taking it one mile at a time.

2 thoughts on “What to do when a race doesn’t go as planned

  1. Oh man, I could write a book with all the bad races I’ve had lol. But I agree 100%, bad races give us a much bigger insight into our weaknesses that a good race doesn’t. I am susceptible to cramping in the hamstrings. Too many bad races and I’m finally strength training. We have to learn from the bad and improve on our weaknesses. Overall, I get pissed off after a bad race lol

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve definitely had my fair share of bad races! Many of them were weather-related, where it was completely out of my hands, some were other things like stomach issues with no known cause, others were where I was sick at the start of the race. You just have to go into races like those with the idea you’re just going to do your best and that’s all you can do. No matter what my finish time is, if I’ve put my best effort into it, I’m happy.


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