Runners are a motivated bunch. We run and see progress, so we run some more. The distances go up, the times and the numbers on the scale may come down. Life is good. Until all of the sudden … we have a bad day. A bad training run or an off race stops us in our tracks. We don’t know how to deal with this because we have been cruising along in running bliss following the rules of the road and enjoying all the benefits of our healthy lifestyle. Now what? Some runners,myself included, freak out at first. Knowing how to deal with a bad day or even a bad week or two will make us better runners in the end. After many attempts at dealing with this by pouting, sulking, obsessing, or worrying I finally have found some strategies that work. Thanks to the many coaches, friends, and family members who have helped in this process and hopefully they will help you too.
Analyze but don’t dwell.
This is a journey of ups and downs and often the downs are a better opportunity for learning and growth than the ups. Spend some time thinking about what you perceive went wrong. Maybe you fell short of a time goal or your arch rival beat you to the line or the run simply hurt way more than you think it should. Try to define what exactly you were unhappy about because it is much more instructive to deal with specifics and often just defining the problem helps you move on.
Now focus on the why. Did you go out too fast in a race? Maybe you set a goal that was not realistic for your current fitness level or maybe you were under prepared. Did you run too many miles or not enough? Was the race hot, humid, cold, rainy or did you not fuel or hydrate properly? Remember all of these factor into your performance. There are others too: stress from the week, travel, disturbed sleep, overtraining, poor chronic nutrition and hydration, not enough rest, or the onset of an injury. If it was something within your control, make a note of it and commit to a different approach next time. If it was out of your control (weather, a bad plane ride to the race, or a ridiculously fit buddy) let it go. You cannot fix what you cannot control.
Try to consider the what and the why a few days after the event, not immediately. You want to look at your performance from a calm state not an emotional (and often tired) one. Give yourself a few days or a week for a big run or race and then simply analyze. Pretend you are looking at a friend’s performance and not your own. If you can be honest with yourself the reason may be obvious. Sometimes it is not and that’s fine. Move on. You’ve done the work now focus on something else.
Change your Inner Voice
Nothing good comes from obsessing about one bad workout or race. Once you have honestly assessed your performance it is time to let it go. Talk with other runners about things that have gone wrong for them. You will soon realize that EVERYONE has a bad day once in a while. I personally have a bad long run once during every marathon training season. I’m talking BAD, like slowing to a walk hands on knees bent over wishing for a car to pick me up kind of run. Every time. And it’s usually not the longest one and I still worry that “if I can’t successfully complete a 16 mile run how am I supposed to do 10 more?” Once I calm down and go through my analysis, that voice changes to “ok you’ve done this before and you struggled because it was hot, or icy, forgot to take enough Gu, or had two glasses of wine with dinner, whatever you’ll be fine.” We are our own worse critic but can also be our best cheerleader too. Remind yourself that you are putting in the time and the effort required to be successful and one rough run does not change that. Sometimes life gets in the way and you need to have those glasses of wine with a friend the night before a long run. It’s fine, you will still make it to the finish line. If you struggle to improve your dialogue with yourself, practice. Be honest with yourself but also be kind. If you still struggle, email me. I’m happy to be your cheerleader.
Find Perspective and Balance
Running is a sport, a hobby, a way of life but it is not everything. Do not allow one part of your life to overtake the rest of it. If you are getting emotional junk that is caused by running it may be time to take a break. As much as running or any healthy endeavor can enrich our lives, if we allow it to be the center of our lives then we have lost the point. Rest, go to the gym, do some yoga, hike along a river bank with a buddy. Running should be an improvement in your life, a great part of your day, but you should be able to step away from it too at times. Reconnect with your loved ones and play a board game with your kids. As with every part of our busy lives perspective on what is important and finding the right balance for you is key. No one can tell you how much is too much for you and it may even change with time. Just don’t be afraid to play with what that means for your running. Sometimes it might be more miles and others less. Just make sure you are getting positive feedback from your sport, both physically and emotionally.
Don’t Let One Bad Race Define You
It is said that professional athletes have short memories and the best can push their negative performances out of their minds and move on. Those that don’t fall into the dreaded slump. Don’t go there. Remember Shaq putting up bricks in the NBA finals from the free throw line, just to turn it around a few days later and become a decent free throw shooter? Ok maybe not, how about a running example. Paula Radcliffe, arguably the most dominant female marathoner of our time, sat down on a curb during the Olympic Marathon in 2004. Her body was spent. If it can happen to her it can happen to anyone. It does not define her as a runner and certainly not as a person. She not only kept going but a little over 2 months after she WON the NYC marathon. We are all allowed a bad day here and there, I’m just thrilled that mine aren’t broadcast in British tabloid!
Laugh at Yourself
Sometimes the bad days become the best stories. How many times can we talk about our “perfect race” until our family and friends want to tape or mouths shut? However, a little self deprecating humor goes a long way and laughing actually helps us to get over those rough spots. I have a group of running buddies who spent a year training and racing together and we have an infamous race day, Columbus Marathon 2007. Each one of us had our own separate torture but to this day we repeat the stories over and over. I had a runner waiting for me at mile 18 and he “ran” me in while in jeans and holding a coffee cup telling me all sorts of stories about who knows what just to keep my mind off my misery. Two others had even more fun. Somewhere in Upper Arlington my buddy decided that he wanted to take a nap and so he laid down in someone’s front yard for a few minutes. His fiance, now wife, was there waiting and absolutely read him the riot act. She told him that she had not given up the last few months of her life for him to just lay down! You better believe he got running again. He joined up with a third of our group and they jog-walked toward the finish. At some point, some fan along the course was giving out free Jolly Ranchers. Instead of taking one and moving on, my friend asked her for an orange one and they stood there looking through the bag … we are not even sure they make orange Jolly Ranchers! My third friend, who actually had a good race in my book, ran the last half mile of the race backward! He said his hamstrings hurt and the best thing he could think of to do was turn around. Every one of us finished that marathon and have gone on to run very successful races, but that doesn’t even matter. What does is how much fun we have reminiscing about our time together. My only regret now, is that I wasn’t back with the other two during the orange Jolly Rancher incident!
Find yourself that support group. Whether it’s a group of runners you train with every week, a friend you can be totally honest with, or a spouse who will put up with your talk of negative splits make sure you have support. This is a solitary sport, but it does not have to be lonely. Remember that if every run has a purpose then even the bad ones are making you stronger. Learn from them, but don’t get hung up on them. If you need an extra shot of happy, shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m always ready to be your cheerleader. See you on the trail!
p.s. The end of the 2007 Marathon story is the best part. As I stood sobbing, big clunky loud tears, into my coach’s puffy maroon coat I stopped for a moment to ask him “How did you do?” His response? ‘I won.’ Won what I asked? ‘Uh the MARATHON’ Best.Day.Ever!