Do you ever suffer from these symptoms following a race?
- You change the subject when someone asks you how the race went.
- You groan, frown, or slump when you compare your finishing time to others’.
- You say, “Why bother?” when you consider upcoming races.
- You take the next day off from running to let your sore muscles recover, which makes you feel depressed; or:
- You run the next day in spite of an objective awareness that a day off for recovery would be good for you, which makes you feel depressed.
- You look in your old running logs to check past performances at that race distance, which makes you feel depressed.
- Your loved ones tell you to cheer up and imply you should get a life, which makes you feel depressed.
If you identify with at least five of these symptoms, you could have PPWD, or Post Personal Worst Disorder, a clinical form of post-race blues marked by dwelling on a lackluster performance and wallowing in loserdom.
Of course I’m exaggerating and making these terms up, but I flirted with these symptoms following the Kaiser San Francisco Half Marathon on February 6. I felt lousy physically and mentally for the last six of the thirteen miles and came very close to walking and dropping out. A negative patter of self-talk such as “that mile split was pathetic” and “there is nothing fun about this” drowned out attempts at positive self-coaching, such as, “You’re doing fine, just keep it steady” and “check out how pretty the beach looks.”
In years past, when I ran track more and weighed less, I could break 1:29 or 1:30 in this race. I knew I was not in sub-1:30 shape, so I scaled back my goal to sub-1:35, which I thought should be quite manageable. As it turned out, I struggled mightily—in part because my foot injury bothered me and temperatures reached hotter than normal—and I beat myself up mentally for being so far behind a couple of women I used to run in a pack with. My concern about my pace and how my finish time would stack up on the results board sabotaged any positive feelings about what was going right.
Even though I ran a strong (by most people’s standards) time of 1:35:55, I felt quite disappointed for the next twenty-four hours.
Now I’m feeling better, thanks to some advice, self-analysis, and much-needed perspective. Part of the help came from sports psychologist Neal Bowes, who succinctly summarizes the mindset I had around this race. I was myopically “outcome focused,” as defined below, even though I have long recognized the benefits of being “process focused.” (Old hangups die hard.) Bowes wrote the following for a Runner’s World article, reprinted with permission here:
OUTCOME-FOCUSED: You focus on a highly ambitious, perhaps unrealistic, time goal.
PROCESS-FOCUSED: Your time goal is based on training runs and recent races. You also focus on mindset, pacing, fueling, nutrition.
OUTCOME-FOCUSED: Your confidence as a runner is based on race times. You’re driven by how people will view your achievements.
PROCESS-FOCUSED: Your confidence is based on your ability to execute a race plan, your development as a runner, and the role running plays in your life.
OUTCOME-FOCUSED: You measure race-day success in terms of times and placing. If you miss a goal time, you feel like a failure.
PROCESS-FOCUSED: You measure race-day success based partly on times and placing, but also on the experience—what you can learn and how you can apply it to future races.
In addition to striving to be more process-focused, I also found that the following is helping me move past the bad race:
– Understand what went wrong. My heart was not in this race, my foot was not entirely healed, and I didn’t train properly for it. I viewed the event as a stepping stone in training for longer upcoming races that I care more about—which would have been fine if I mentally treated it as “just a training run.” Instead, I still wanted to be fast and kinda kick ass as I had in years past. I cared too much about how I did in relation to others. I therefore approached the start with unrealistic expectations.
– Reflect on what went right, and celebrate those achievements. A lot went well in this race. I ate and hydrated properly, so I didn’t have bathroom emergencies or dehydration. I picked up the pace in the last half mile and sprinted to the finish. And most importantly, I didn’t give up, even though I strongly considered dropping out at Mile 8.
– Find reasons to enjoy the race that have nothing to do with how fast you finish. The race morning had several bright spots that I don’t want my negative mood to overshadow: I carpooled with old friends and enjoyed their company. I saw Golden Gate Park for the first time in months. I felt free and strong while striding out on a shady downhill stretch. I got the thrill of watching elite runners zoom by on the course as they approached after a turnaround point. And regardless of my pace, I ran for over 90 minutes, which is a healthy way to spend a morning.
– Channel your disappointment into motivation for a comeback at an upcoming race. I’ll try to chalk up the half marathon as a hard, steady training run, and use what I learned for a better, more positive time at upcoming races that I’m looking forward to.
– Make peace with the age and stage your body is in. My emotions around aging and body image amplified my negative reaction to the race. I need to accept the fact that I’m over 40 and require more recovery time after hard workouts. And I’m a solid five to six pounds heavier than I used to be, which translates to running slower even if some of that weight gain is muscle. I’ve been this size for several years now, so I should accept it as the “new normal” rather than struggling unsuccessfully to be the skinnier person I was in my mid-thirties.
– Gain perspective and look at the big picture. When I was a beginner runner, back in the olden times of my mid-twenties, I ran this same event in 1:37. I was elated at what was then a PR (personal record) and thought that 1:37 was so fast. I need to remember how far I’ve come over my lifetime as a runner.
I’m grateful to others who helped me gain a broader, healthier perspective. One runner wrote me, “Your revised goal was 1:35 and you squeaked under 1:36. That’s close enough that I’d consider it satisfactory. If you want a lackluster, mentally negative race, try running 1:48 for 10 miles when I expected to run 1:25.” Another runner friend wrote on my Facebook wall: “OMG, if I could ever run a sub 1:40, I would kiss the ground!!!!”
Then, as if to hit me over the head with a reminder of what really matters, I heard some truly terrible news. It turns out that a male runner, age 36, collapsed and died in the last mile. My friend Alita heard the news too and wrote, “Yesterday was rough. I was disappointed in not achieving my goal time. But I went to a party and met a young woman runner who had witnessed the failed resuscitation and subsequent death of a runner at the finish line yesterday. She told a harrowing story and was still pretty shaken. Hearing her really made me change my perspective of the race. I took care of myself at the race, slowed down to drink a lot, and I made it. You made it too, with a bum foot and all!”
Yes, I made it, and now I when I look at the bigger picture, I find a lot to be proud of and grateful for.
If you’ve bounced back from a disappointing race performance and the post-race blues, I hope you’ll write a comment to share how you did it and any advice you might have to supplement these tips.
(p.s. I’ll post photos from the race once they’re available from brightroom.com; this is a stock image from a previous year.)