5 Ways to Get Over a Bad Race Experience

You've trained for months, logging scores, or even hundreds of miles to prepare for your goal race. Then the big day arrives and something disastrous happens: You get the flu. You wake up to a freak hailstorm, heat wave, or blizzard. A killer muscle cramp stops you in your tracks. And with that, your dreams of running a PR or qualifying for Boston evaporate. Maybe you don't even reach the finish line. You're disappointed, maybe even devastated. Was all that hard work really worth it?

Of course it was, as long as you heed what went wrong. "Not meeting a race goal doesn't mean that the race is a failure," says Mark Wallis, a running coach and marathoner from Tucson. "If you can learn something from it, a bad race could be a stepping stone to a breakthrough performance. Also, when you work through a challenging experience, you develop mental strength and perseverance that will help you on your next tough run."

Getting into that mind-set and being able to learn from the past and refocus on the future isn't an easy task. So we've broken the process down into five stages that'll help you recover from the initial letdown and plan your comeback.

1. Immediately After

Wallow (A Bit)

"When you invest so much into your training and don't get the results you want, you have a right to be upset," says sports psychologist Karen Cogan of Denton, Texas. "Expressing your frustration should be part of your recovery process." Cry, mope, blog, vent to a fellow runner who can empathize. Do what you need to for a day or two (a week tops) — it'll help you move on.

2. The Morning After

Find a Positive

Jane Buck's first marathon in 2008 seemed doomed from the get-go: She woke up feeling sick, a punctured gel oozed all over her hands at the start, her heart-rate monitor fell apart, and then it began to rain. At mile 19, she vomited. Still, she finished, which made her realize "I can do anything I set my mind to," she says. "Now when I'm having a tough time on a run, I think back to that race and I can keep going." Wallis says finding the silver lining will help you get over a bad day. "If you were able to adapt and work through, consider the race a success," he says. "Redirect your energy to something positive that came out of it, whether it's getting to run through a new city or getting a new race T-shirt for your collection."

Ask yourself: Did you pre-race activities affect your performance?

3. A Week Later

Analyze It

Once your emotions settle, review your training plan, your diet, and your race-day strategy to see if there is anything you can improve upon. "Every race is a puzzle," says coach Jeff Horowitz, author of My First 100 Marathons. "Look for clues to solve the puzzle." Did you rest enough during your taper? Did you go out too fast? Did you drink enough leading up to—and during—the race? "What went wrong is sometimes within your control," says Horowitz, who is proof that mistakes can happen to experienced runners. In March, at his 141st marathon, he was on pace for a 3:15 finish. But 22 miles in, his energy tanked and his calf muscle cramped. He eventually finished in 3:35. "I pieced together what went wrong," he says. "I wasn't taking in enough electrolytes." He tweaked his nutrition strategy for his next race and finished strong, cramp-free—and 10 minutes faster.

Try the ultimate runner's diet.
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