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Elites Discuss Best Practices for Resetting Your Race Goals

Prior to this year’s Boston Marathon, Dathan Ritzenhein had been running more than 100 miles a week in preparation for the annual event. Along with putting in the miles, he was cross training and strength training. Five days before the historic 26.2-mile race, he announced he was dropping out because of sacroiliac joint pain.

“You put so much into it, especially a key race like championships or marathons, so when it lets you down it can leave you feeling … sort of empty,” said the three-time Olympian and runner for Hansons-Brooks Original Distance Project.

Ritzenhein was one of a handful of pros to withdraw from the Boston Marathon. This year, some 3,000 qualifying runners chose not to compete, and mostly because of Marathon Monday’s grueling weather conditions, about 1,200 did not finish the race. In comparison, about 800 runners were unable to complete it in 2017, according to the Boston Athletic Association.

Like Ritzenhein, many runners have at some point had to pull out of a race that they’ve been training for for months. And those tough decisions are marked by three little letters on race result pages: DNS (did not start) or DNF (did not finish). Those letters can sometimes throw runners off their game as they go into your next race. If you’ve ever been in that situation, here are three ways you can reset your race goals after a defeating run, injury or withdrawal.

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Practice Emotional Discipline

A DNS or DNF can be a tough blow to your self-confidence, but ultrarunner Dylan Bowman says there are a few ways to reset your goals if race day doesn’t go as planned. “It’s about how you use that disappointment to bounce back,” stated Bowman, a North Face and Red Bull ultrarunner. In 2017, he pulled out of the 2017 Ultra-trail Cape Town 100K race in South Africa with a stomach virus. Hoping to gut out the miles, he started the race, but struggled throughout and eventually made his way to the first aid station. He withdrew and was taken to the hospital.

“I could’ve jumped to the next opportunity,” said Bowman of setting goals after the 2017 race. “But I would’ve been setting myself up for another disappointment. You have to resist that temptation. Practice some emotional discipline. Have some poise and restraint in thinking about your next goal.”

Two months later, fully recovered, Bowman won the Tarawera 102K in New Zealand. “There’s always silver linings to those disappointing circumstances if you have perspective,” said Bowman.

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Let Your Body Recover

Although Ritzenhein didn’t run in Boston, he’s not driving to conquer an immediate or specific race since the setback. Instead, he’s recovering slowly and working on preventing more injuries with stretching, strength training, dynamic drills and manual therapy.

“The first inclination is to hit it hard right away,” he said of training plans after his withdrawal in Boston. “Making sure my body is ready to handle the training longer term [is] more important … If the body was in need of rest, you have to be smart and let [it] take the needed down time.”

Long-distance runner Aliphine Tuliamuk says she knows what happens if you don’t let the body recover. The Hoka One One elite chose to race in April with a herniated disc. She said the Credit Union Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run went horribly. “I was struggling running a 5:20 pace, and that’s when I got dropped,” she said. “I was struggling to breathe and my hips felt like someone was hammering them really hard.

“Honestly, it was the rock bottom of my entire professional running career,” said Tuliamuk. “It was very hard for me to bounce back.” But Tuliamuk focused on recovery after the race, even taking time off from running. She used an elliptical, cross-trained and worked on strengthening her lower back. In early May, she returned to the starting line at the USATF Half Marathon Championships and won in 1:10:04.

“I’m glad it turned out great, and I realized that I am probably in a better place fitness-wise than I thought,” she said. “Now I am excited to set some new goals and in fact, I now think that that I can run faster than before.”

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Prepare For The Next Goal

Even more important than adapting your training schedule, is letting your mind recover from the disappointment. And that starts with accepting the inevitably of bad races and injuries. “It’s important for all runners to understand that injury is part of the game, and we can’t prevent it forever, so when the unfortunate time hits, take it easy and don’t stress yourself,” shared Tuliamuk.

Ritzenhein suggests surrounding yourself with people who can help you overcome setbacks and, even though it may be hard, giving yourself a day off. “Even if you don’t do this [during training], it is more important when rehabbing because the mental strain is greater,” he said.

“Like anything else, time heals. Putting that energy back into getting healthy helps to keep negativity out of your mind,” added Ritzenhein. “A positive attitude will lead to faster recovery and better appreciation for why you love running.”