How to Recover from a Race that Sucked

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.

The Kaiser SF Half Marathon logo

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!”

A stretch of the course along the Great Highway.

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.)

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11 Responses to How to Recover from a Race that Sucked

  1. Jeffery February 8, 2011 at 3:24 pm #

    Yeah – I’m mostly process-focused!

    I still toe the starting line thinking it’s a miracle to be running a race, and am very grateful.

    JR

    • Sarah February 8, 2011 at 3:32 pm #

      Jeffery — I know, you always have a good attitude! Maybe that’s why you keep getting faster at all distances — your times are a byproduct of you running for the right reasons.

  2. Phil February 8, 2011 at 6:03 pm #

    I wonder if people who are goal-oriented runners have a shorter running career than people who run for the love of it. I’m 42 and I was never all that fast, but I definitely won’t be breaking any records now. I do struggle with staying motivated when I’m running races and there isn’t much or any room for improvement.

    • Sarah February 8, 2011 at 9:34 pm #

      I’m not sure, but I think the trick is to modify goals so they’re appropriate, and to try to be both goal-oriented and run for the love of it rather than having it be a dichotomy.

  3. Alita February 10, 2011 at 6:23 am #

    I loved the opening of the article, Sarah. Funny – and I think most “serious runners” can identify with the symptoms.
    I really can only think of a very few races that sucked – so I must be gaining some perspective!

  4. John Nguyen February 10, 2011 at 2:06 pm #

    I’ve had a few post race blues. And I’ve had moments during races where I felt really lost. I think its important to count your blessings, to realize that outside of running, we are still very blessed. And then its important to think about what inspires you. “Willpower comes from inspiration”… And sometimes you need to draw some extra willpower to continue the fight, to finish the race, or to give your all, for those of us that aren’t so lucky or talented… To inspire and challenge the people who look up to us… I think your success and hard work as a runner inspires a lot of people, Sarah. And I think you’re way to hard on yourself, way too often. You’re an awesome runner and writer and I look forward to hearing about your adventures as runner. Sometimes enjoying the journey is more important than arriving at your destination…

    • Sarah February 10, 2011 at 2:47 pm #

      John, thank you so much for your feedback–I really appreciate what you wrote. I’ve had others tell me I’m my own harshest critic, and there’s probably some truth to that! Keep running, and thanks again.

  5. Shauna May 5, 2011 at 9:32 am #

    This is such a great post, Sarah. I’ve been putting off writing a recap of my less than stellar first marathon, and found this while reading your Paris post (which of course, I loved). I’m definitely process-focused in my goals, but even then, it’s tough to enjoy a race when everything starts to go wrong! This was a good reminder to focus on what you can learn from the bad experiences, too, though.

  6. Simon Goodship November 12, 2011 at 1:01 pm #

    Sorry about this experience Sarah. You inspire me, even with a post about being depressed after a race. That’s a gift. Great advice here.
    I trained very hard for 8 months and was going to run the Chicago Half Marathon. It would have been my first real race. I didn’t have a time goal. I just wanted to run strong, have a reasonable time and soak it all up. I got people to sponsor me. I was so proud of my progress. I lost 40lbs in the process of becoming a runner.
    The week before the race, I discovered that I had two stress fractures in my left foot. It’s not the same as having a bad race but it was all the more embarrassing because it was my first and all those people who were supporting me had to be told the bad news. I went into a bit of depression because I felt like I had blown it and because I was in an air-cast and couldn’t run.
    In the end, I decided to let the negative feelings and embarrassment go. I had made the decision not run because of the chance that I could get a full fracture on race day. I decided that having running in my life was more important than a single race – even if it was my first. A good lesson for me to learn. I hadn’t realize how important running had become to me. I turned my failure on it’s head and created a fun blog that was all about my running imperfections. A very positive experience that may serve me well at times when I can’t actually run.
    Thanks again for the inspiration Sarah.
    Simon Goodship recently posted..In defense of Ann Trason (Born to Run)My Profile

  7. Teresa September 21, 2015 at 11:57 am #

    Thanks so much for this post. I didn’t even start running until I was in my mid 40s and had no competitive sports experience, so I’ve never been blazingly fast. I had a great first year, then had a severe back injury (from martial arts, not running) and about a year of reduced running and racing. Since then, I’ve started a running streak that’s in its second year and set lots of PRs; I average a dozen races a year.

    But I’ve had two recent races that really disappointed me. One was my first trail 50K where I ran too fast downhill too early in the race, got horrible blisters and then back pain, and limped into a next to last division place.

    The second was my marathon yesterday. The first half was great – I was on pace despite some really steep hills through mile 8 – but after the halfway mark, my new racing flats really started to hurt. By mile 15, both legs were solid pain all the way up. I still improved my PR by half an hour, but I did not BQ. That time went by at mile 23.

    So in two instances, a race that could have been good turned into a horrible pain endurance challenge, because of a stupid mistake. I knew not to run too fast downhill early in a long race! I knew not to wear new shoes to a marathon! (I had run in them, but not marathon distance and marathon pace) And I knew to train on the surface you’ll race on (asphalt), not what’s convenient (my nice dirt trail).

    This is my day to wallow; I’ll fill several pages of my training journal with woe. And if that works like it usually does, I’ll feel more sanguine tomorrow. Thanks for some very good advice!

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  1. Running California’s Central Coast: Why a Painful 50K Made a Romantic Getaway | The Runner's Trip: Run Long, Travel Far, Discover More. - May 14, 2014

    […] I recalled how my race that sucked from the previous weekend prompted my one and only goal for this event: to finish in a positive […]

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