Letting Go - How To Recover From A Bad Race Or Run

RB12: Letting Go – How To Recover From A Bad Race Or Run


So we all have had bad workouts and races. Sometimes we know what went wrong, but what gets crazy frustrating is when there doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to it. With a bad training run, we can usually get over it, but when it happens during a race, it can be especially tough. It's especially frustrating if it's a race that we have trained for weeks or months or, you know, everything just kind of leads up to that one day and then we end up with a lackluster performance or worse, not even reaching the finish. 

I want to share some ideas on how we can try to prevent it, how to set proper expectations, how to recover when we do have a letdown and how to get back on the training bandwagon. 

My Personal Experience of a Bad Race


That was my third marathon. I had spent about 20 weeks preparing for this particular marathon, and I felt pretty confident and a little nervous when I started like I do at the beginning of any big race. I felt pretty confident in my ability. The first half of the race went amazingly well. I mean, very well. I was dead on my race pace, everything felt especially easy, and that probably should have been my sign that things would change.

Around a mile or 15 or 16 or so, I started having these little neurological pains shooting up my legs. I can describe it as that feeling you get when you hit your funny bone on your elbow and it makes that little electrical shock. Occasionally, my leg would fail to hold up and I would almost fall, I wouldn't be able to put much weight on it when my foot landed. 

That year, it was the first time I actually had the pains go up my leg. Also, I found out earlier that year that I had a little bit of slight degeneration in the discs in my back and one is slightly herniated, which wasn't anything severe enough that required any surgery or any kind of repair. However, on occasion, it would flare up, or in the past, it would start off with my feet getting numb on both my legs.

And guess what happened on race day? It flared up again. This time it was something completely different. I experienced these neurological pains at mile 20 or so, I was forced to walk because every maybe 10 times that my foot would land, my leg would give out. It was just a challenge to even not fall. At one point I was pretty concerned and scared and almost stopped at the medical stop when I passed it, but then my stubbornness and probably a little bit of pride, OK, maybe a lot of pride prevented me from doing so.

I went on to finish that race because I figured out I might as well walk it in than waiting around for somebody to pick me up. It probably wasn't the smartest thing to do to try to continue, but in any case, I did that. Towards the end of the race, I actually recovered a little bit and at least enough that I could walk, run maybe the last two miles or so. Though my expectations of getting the times that I was targeting was way, way off. When I finished that race, I remember blaming myself and my back which was kind of an issue. 

I got pissed off and moaned and griped to myself a little bit. I went through the typical post-race regrets that a lot of people do when they have a bad race. I think I even went through the seven stages of crisis steps, the ones like shock, denial, anger, despair, acceptance, moving on, or whatever the specific steps are. 

Seemed like I experienced a lot of different feelings. Anyway, it took me a few days and I made a lot of excuses to myself and my friends for my poor performance, but now after a few days and a little bit of rest, I kind of came to the realization that it really wasn't all just my back.

In fact, I'm pretty sure I wasn't really being that authentic or true to myself to what the real causes were. 

But as I went through it, my pity party, I realized that I was undertrained for that race. Looking back, I had missed quite a few runs, I cut some long runs. I wasn't cross-training or doing any strength training due to just not putting in the time and focusing on it. 

And I really just kind of didn’t plan my training carefully, and there's a lot of reasons for that. I was busy doing work and different things and training and coaching others. So I let my own running fall by the wayside. It was also maybe a little bit of arrogance and that I had run marathons before and had done well. I felt like I was at a point where my fitness level was high enough that I didn't need to train as hard. 

On the other side, now when I look back, I think going through that few days of feeling sorry for myself, doing a little bit of introspection, kind of reviewing all the things I needed to improve after a few days.

I got over it and motivation returned. And then it became a kind of a challenge to accept it for what it was, and use it as a learning experience and move on. And guess what? That works. It really helps you refocus. 

So I guess some of the things that I've learned over the years of running races or even just long training runs is that no matter the distance, something during a race usually does not go as expected. We need to have some expectation that things can go wrong. If something goes wrong, try not to panic, deal with it, and move past it. 

On that particular day, I learned pretty valuable lessons.

9 Lessons Learned From a Bad Run

Lesson 1: Don't Underestimate the Proper Training

While I did finish the race, I was able to finish the race, and that in itself is an accomplishment, it was my expectation of how I was going to perform that day, and that was mostly disappointment.

I had expected to run a very well run race, even though I think in the back of my mind, I knew I hadn't prepared for it, so I didn't get the results. I didn't get the results because I didn't prepare for it.

Lesson 2: It’s Important to Do Core-Strength Exercises


I needed to focus or refocus back on my core and particularly my back strengthening exercises, because when my core strength in my back is strong, I tend not to have the flare-ups in the issues with my back. 

So I spent quite a bit of time, almost a year, kind of avoiding anything longer than a half marathon to allow my back to heal. I cut back the number of races and I started a strength training for running program, and it's out on the runner's resources page. It has really, really helped me out.

In my case, poor race performance was caused partially by this overconfidence, a little bit to injury, obviously, the poor training, and poor core strength.

Lesson 3: Find a Balance 


Also, there are many other things that can cause poor race performance. Beyond those, it can be stress, lack of sleep, fatigue, poor diet. Often these all go together in some sort of combination. 

As I look back, I was doing most of these things poorly as well. I wasn't sleeping well. I was stressed out combining my work, running, podcast, managing a running club, and other responsibilities. 

I still do a lot of those things today. But what I've learned is that I can only do those in certain bursts without having to kind of balance them out with rest and taking time off on occasion.

Lesson 4: Right Nutrition Is Crucial


The only thing I was doing right during that time was my diet. It was relatively good. I was eating clean and probably if it hadn't been for that, I probably would have been even in worse shape. 

Key Takeaway: You have to analyze all the factors that influence your running performance. This includes the lack of sleep, fatigue, the diet, training plan. Fixing any one of these or a combination of these will just have huge benefits on your running.

Lesson 5: Everyday Stress Impacts your Recovery


One thing I believe in is that most of us, including myself, often tend to separate the training or the workout stress from everyday life stress. We think that training is kind of its own compartmentalized thing, and all the other stuff, life, work, whatever operates in a separate compartment. In fact, the training or the workout stress is great because it tears your body down, but your body through rest recovery nutrition builds back up to be stronger. 

As for the stress from everyday life, it doesn't work that way. It actually breaks and continues to tear your body down and wear you down. And that just leads to complete body and mind fatigue, which ultimately starts impacting things like your sleep. You start skipping workouts and often you can turn to comfort foods or other types of vices to help you deal with the stress. 

Yet, the good news is that all of these things are things that are within your control or at least you can be aware of them and try to do better. 

Lesson 6: Weather Is out of Your Control


Sometimes, bad runs happen, the race has happened and you have no control. Zero, none, nada.

This happened a few years back when I was running the Chicago Marathon. It was in the upper 70s when the race started and in the low mid 90s, I think it was like 93, 94, the last third to the half of the race that I was running. And I actually had a lot better training habits and experience going into that race.

Except the heat slowed my times down quite a bit, it was probably a testament to my strong training habits leading into that race that I was even able to finish because many people didn't. It was just so hot that day, the heat was the factor that was out of my control and there's little I could do about it.

On the other side, studies have shown that when temperatures rise above 65 degrees your heart rate will also rise up by about 10 beats per minute, and that has an impact on your performance. And if the humidity is added to the heat and is also high you should add or think about adding another 10 or so beats to that number. 

So what does that mean? It means your body is working much much harder because of the heat and humidity and you just can't run as fast. You just can't sustain your pace in hot weather.

The good news is what's encouraging especially with your training runs when you're training through the hot summer is that you're getting the same training benefit at a slower pace at least from a heart rate or cardio perspective. So it may just be that the increased temperature is your cause for your poor performance. 

And I think we all experienced going out and running or trying to do anything when it's hot outside. But you know it's a good reminder that if you wake up on a race day or a long-run morning or whatever and it's ninety-three degrees you might want to change your expectations

You know your goals may have to be adjusted on the fly and that's just sometimes the way it is. It's tough especially if you spent several weeks training for a race leading up to that and you have poor race weather on that one day. 

Lesson 7: Rest and Recovery are Essential


Let's shift to training, bad runs and even races can come from just general poor recovery. So you know whether it's doing too many workouts or you're not eating proper types of food after workouts, your nutrition is not strong, you're not timing your foods properly. Poor recovery can lead to low muscle or liver glycogen levels being stored and so you're starting the runs with no energy in the tank or at least lower energy in the tank.

Or maybe it's slower muscle repair because you're not recovering with the proper amounts of food as well or you're not putting your runs too close together and so all this can lead to fatigued and tired muscles.

There's a rest and recovery component to all of this, but there's also the nutritional component. So again eating the right type of foods at the right time can drastically improve your body's ability to recover, refuel, repair, and so on to be ready for the next day's workout. Skip some of this and your next run may not go as planned. So it may just be a matter of you're a little dehydrated or you're not properly fueled.

If you're not fully recovered all these things obviously can lead to poor performance.

Lesson 8: Improper Training Plans Сan Impact Your Performance

Improper training plans or maybe not following a training plan that leads to workouts or mileage that is either too advanced or the wrong type of workouts for what you're ready to do can certainly lead to poor runs or poor performance in races.

It may be that you know these types of workouts your body is just not ready or the mileage progression is too aggressive and it has led to training fatigue. Sometimes a training season is too long, you may peak too soon or in the weeks and weeks of training, it just has accumulated to the point where it's tired you out. 

And I think you get the idea. Also, you may check out a funny blog post about what it is like running a half marathon with no training. It's called the 71 Stages of Running a Half Marathon with Little or No Training. I highly recommend not doing this for your half marathon or race but in any case, it is kind of a hilarious and funny article. 

Lesson 9: Consider Seeing a Doctor

One more thing to keep in mind is that if you are having several bad runs in a row especially when it comes to low energy or whatever, something is definitely wrong:

  • You may be training too hard
  • It could be early warning signs of injury 
  • It could be some medical issue (iron or vitamin deficiency)

If you're experiencing just lots and lots of bad runs in a row, you feel like you don’t have the energy, and taking some time off and rest is not fixing that, you should probably go check out and see a doctor. 

I'm not a doctor and I can't provide medical advice but I would highly recommend seeking that out just to see what else could be going on. And then, of course, there’re these things that just happen, and you don't have control over them. You could twist your ankle slip on ice. You know Murphy's Law is everywhere.

We certainly can't help that. It's just the way things are, which is why you know sometimes we shouldn't be so self-consumed with running that we can't enjoy life. When we have something injured, you have to take a little time off. But again there are lots of things we do have control over as runners and we just have to do the best we can, and more importantly, be satisfied with it.

That doesn't mean we don't want to have or hold ourselves to a higher standard and try to hold ourselves accountable, but sometimes our bodies and minds will just not feel like running, and you just have to accept sometimes that this particular day or that particular day was just not your day.

How to Move On From A Bad Run

1. Start with Proper Recovery


Don’t start training hard the next day after a bad race, it won’t help you improve but may cause injury. Your mind and body need to rest and rebuild. Reduce the intensity of training and minimize the impact on your joints at least for 2 days. If it was a half marathon, marathon, or ultramarathon, your recovery may take up to several weeks.

Activities like swimming and restorative yoga are the best ways to help you recover mentally and physically.

2.Identify What Went Wrong


When you have a bad run, don’t start blaming yourself immediately, instead try to analyze what could be a reason for your less-than-satisfying performance on a race day.

You probably have to ask yourself a couple of questions:

How tough is your training plan? If you feel sluggish, struggle to get out the door for a run, you may be overtrained. Therefore, your performance will be low.

Have you recently cut down on some foods, become vegan, or started a detox diet? Any changes in your diet routine may be beneficial or not. If you’re getting ready for a race, nutrition and hydration play an important role. 

You have to make sure that you are getting enough calories to fuel your running. In case you have some food intolerances, it’s good to consult a nutritionist, evaluate your macronutrient balance, and create an individual diet.

Are you getting enough sleep? Overtraining and the lack of sleep can impair post-run recovery and impact your running performance. It’s crucial to adopt good sleep habits like no screens before going to bed, and keeping a regular sleep schedule even on weekends.

3.Remember Why You Started Running


We all started running for a reason. So, when you feel like giving up, think about what pushed you to start running. Probably, these are health benefits of running:

  • Reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and other conditions. 
  • Losing excess weight and maintaining a healthy weight.

Or some other reasons like:

  • Breaking out of your comfort zone and becoming more endurant.
  • Showing an example of a healthy lifestyle for your child.

Whatever the reason to start running was, always remember it. This is the main source of your motivation to run and keep improving.

4.Consider Every Failure as a Valuable Experience 

Every race, every marathon is a chance to boost mental toughness. Every failure, every bad run is an important lesson and experience that can prepare you for future races. 

Don’t get frustrated if something goes out of control on a race day, it’s ok, and can happen with everyone. Experience you’ve obtained on one failed race can be used on the future race.

Also, learning to meet challenges during the race can help you learn how to handle other obstacles in your life.

5. Keep a Training Journal 


Journaling is a great way to analyze the details of your runs and track your progress. You will start learning both from failures and successes.

Making notes about your runs can help you reflect on the challenges you’ve faced, find solutions, and improve your performance on the next race.

You can also simply review all the information on your running to remind yourself about all the efforts you put into training and all your accomplishments that you can be proud of.

6. Talk to Your Running Buddies 


All runners have a bad day sometimes, when you’re going through the bad run, you might like to talk it up with somebody who can understand you, support and recommend a solution. 

That’s why it’s good to join a running club and stay in good company. You may discuss your challenging race experience with other runners and ask them how they overcome their obstacles and deal with pre-race anxiety.

By socializing with other runners, you may gather a lot of useful tips, ease your anxiety, reboot your motivation, and become more creative about overcoming your running challenges.

7.Review and Reconsider Your Running Goals


If you fail several races in a row, you should do the goal check. If you are trying to complete a marathon, but haven’t done a shorter distance run, you’re likely to fail and get frustrated.

You should evaluate your current fitness level and anaerobic capacity and review your running goals once again. Start with a short-distance run, increase the distance and intensity of running workouts gradually. Set smaller attainable goals before tackling the main goal. Complete less challenging races and then sign up for a marathon.

Bottom Line 

Stay positive, every run, good or bad helps you improve your running technique and stamina. Even in the hardest run, there is a bright side, and this is the knowledge and experience you get. Adjust your training plan, follow a balanced diet, maintain healthy sleep patterns, do not underestimate the power of rest and recovery, and always remember why you run and its benefits to your physical and mental health. 

Use positive memories about accomplished runs to lift your moods, and try to find an accountability partner that could boost your motivation when you’re about to give up. Most importantly, maintain consistency of your training, which is the key to a successful marathon journey.

Happy Running! 

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About the Author Steve Carmichael

Steve is a RRCA / USA Track and Field Certified Running Coach who has helped thousands of runners since 2010. He coaches online as well as locally in the Columbus, Ohio area. He is host of RunBuzz Running a top rated running podcast with 150+ episodes available for free on all major podcast apps. Steve resides in Lewis Center, Ohio with his wife, kids, and dog.

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