After a bad race, the platitudes are plenty: “Chin up.” “Get back on the horse.” “You’ve got to have the bad in order to appreciate the good.”
But honestly? Such lip service rings hollow when you’re in the dumps—after all, you put all your time and effort into preparing for the race, only to fall short. A bad race can set off a spiral of self-doubt: Is all of this even worth it? Is it possible I just suck at running? Should I quit altogether?
You’re asking the wrong questions, says run coach Tina Klein of Life Time. “Even in a race with a poor outcome, there is always something that is positive,” Klein says. Klein knows that sounds like a cliché, too, but she stands by the statement. One bad race simply isn’t a reason to go into a spiral of despair.
Coach Eric Lutton agrees. “After a bad race, when a runner takes an attitude of ‘I suck,’ they’ll never improve. They may continue to practice, but with that negative attitude, they have already given up,” Lutton says. “They will not have the motivation to put in the necessary effort to reach their potential.”
Instead of beating yourself up over a bad race, use it as a tool to get stronger. By asking the right questions post-race, you can gain important insights on what you need to do to nail it next time. Now chin up, and get back on that horse.
How do you think you did?
Note: This is not a question about how you did compared to others in the race, nor is it a question of how others think you did. Start with your own self-evaluation, and take as much time as you need to process your thoughts before getting the insight of others. Since you are the one who actually did the race, your opinion is the most important.
“Coaches have a view of what played out in the race, but I want to find out what their experience was before I jump the gun and tell them what I think they did wrong or right,” Lutton says. “I want to hear what the athlete has to say. What part did they struggle with?” In addition to providing the most accurate analysis of what went down, taking this time for introspection builds the mental muscle needed to conduct such analysis mid-race—meaning next time, you can recognize and change the trajectory when things start to head south.
What do your race photos look like?
A picture is worth a thousand words, and race photos are no exception, says Klein. “I evaluate all of their photos—from start to finish, but focusing on the mid-race photos, if available—to see if there are any visible changes to form or technique.” Look at the alignment of your ankles, knees and hips—is there any noticeable change? What about your shoulders—did they begin to creep up toward your ears? Did your forward lean turn into a slouch? Identifying these biomechanical changes during the race can give you direction on what needs to be strengthened for an injury- and fatigue-proof body.
What’s the bigger picture?
A bad race usually starts well before the starting gun. Klein encourages athletes to look at the race from a holistic standpoint. “Ask yourself if there was something off in the week leading up to the race, or stress of any sort, like lack of sleep, changes in nutrition, life issues, family or a loved one going through a sensitive experience, work,” Klein says. “We may not realize it, but these can all play a factor in race performance.”
What went right?
When you get caught up in a bad end result, it’s easy to forget the things that went right along the way. “Yes, you can identify what you need to work on to improve, but you also need to look at what you did well,” says Lutton. “Maybe you didn’t go out too fast or to slow, or maybe you paced really well, or you handled that difficult section better than you thought you would, or there is something you did better in this race compared to previous races.” Take those victories, however small, and use them for confidence as you face the next challenge.
Where does this race fit in my overall trajectory?
Think back to where you were a month ago, a year ago, or even a decade ago. Chances are this one race didn’t send you plummeting back to square one. Acknowledging your overall improvement can serve as a powerful reminder that this one bad day is just that—one bad day. Top runners know better than any that PRs are rare and only come when all the elements align. Most days, you hope to run strong and smart, and feel good about your effort and fitness.
“No one is always at their best, all of the time,” says Lutton. “We may have slight valleys along the way, but the general direction is up, usually in small improvements.”