How to bounce back from a bad race

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If ‘highway to hell’ is an apt description of your last race, consider the thoughts of the poet John Keats, who called failure the ‘highway to success’. It may seem contradictory to celebrate a flop, but experts agree that losses can fuel future wins. ‘A bad race is an opportunity to gather information, learn and improve,’ says Ralph Heath, a runner and author of Celebrating Failure: The Power of Taking Risks, Making Mistakes and Thinking Big (The Career Press). Turning a negative into a positive may seem impossible, especially when your war wounds still sting. But the sooner you learn from the past, the faster you can move on. Here’s how.

Scream and shout

After a bad race, many of us feel disappointed, says sports psychologist Gloria Balague. ‘Some runners get highly emotional because they see it as a personal failing,’ she says. ‘If you’re invested in your running and don’t get the return, feelings of disappointment are natural and it’s healthy to express them. It shows commitment.’ This grieving stage may last a few hours or days, but it’s not helpful if it lingers. ‘Prolonged grieving lowers confidence,’ says Balague. ‘When you are unable to evaluate what happened and point to a solution, it may signal underlying issues.’ Balague recommends pinpointing the source of your anguish. Are you embarrassed by how others view your performance, ashamed that shortcuts in your training caused it or upset with Mother Nature for unleashing a heatwave? ‘Whatever it is, isolating the source will help you work through your feelings and regain your emotional balance.’

Dissect the race

Once the cursing subsides, examine your misadventure. ‘Every race is a learning experience, so whatever happened is really OK,’ says Cory Nyamora, a running coach, clinical psychologist and director of the Endurance Sports & Psychology Center in Berkeley, California. The first step is to separate what you couldn’t control (poor weather, illness) from what you could (uneven pacing, inadequate training); make peace with the first and focus on rectifying the second. Instead of analysing this in your head, Nyamora recommends going over the details of your race with someone else – ideally an experienced runner or coach. Writing about the experience in a journal or blog can also be helpful. ‘Your internal thoughts can be overly critical, but when you write about an experience, you tend to be less negative and more objective,’ he says.

Move forward

Though signing up for another event is a good way to move on, Nyamora says it’s important to think of the next race as independent from the last one – and not as another go. ‘That mindset will make you feel extra pressure and that could hurt your performance,’ he says. Nyamora encourages runners to space out the events – don’t rush to race again the following weekend. This point is especially important if you run long distance. You might be eager to redeem yourself, but if your muscles aren’t fully recovered, you could be setting yourself up for another bad race. (The rule of thumb is that before competing again you need one day of recovery for every mile you raced.) You should also consider the emotional toll the bad race took on you. ‘If you’re desperate to prove something to yourself or others, or you’re still angry about the last race, wait,’ says Nyamora. ‘It might be best to take a break from racing until you’ve emotionally recovered and you really miss it.’