As athletes, I think we are fairly resilient people. The nature of running almost requires this quality as a pre-requisite to enter the club. On any given training day, there are a number of things to potentially overcome: scheduling conflicts, an upset stomach, nagging injuries, or mechanical failures. If we are able to mentally pick ourselves back up and salvage the positive aspects of these situations, we ultimately become better athletes, and people, in the long run.
However, what about when our big race doesn't go the way we would like? How do we deal with the disappointment and grief that often accompanies this type of outcome? For those of us doing long-course racing such as marathons, or even a championship race such as Nationals, the preparation can extend anywhere from six months to a year prior to the event. During that time, we spend countless hours honing the physical and mental aspects needed to execute a race up to our ability on one particular day. Despite attempting to control as many factors as possible to lead us to a successful result, at times, a sub-par race can still occur. Afterward, we are left to deal with the physical scars that heal over days or weeks, but the mental scars can be much deeper and more difficult to mend.
Here are a few strategies that might work for you allowing you to move forward knowing that your best races are still to come:
1. Give yourself a finite period to grieve
It's perfectly fine to have a good cry or let out the emotion in some outward way. In fact, having these feelings is normal and holding them in can be detrimental to making the full circle of transition to getting over the disappointment. Once you've spent a few days sulking, making a conscious decision to control those feelings and replace them with positive thoughts moving forward.
2. Identify aspects of the day that did go well and as planned (and those that didn't!)
There is no doubt some things that you executed well throughout the race. Even if that list includes "getting to the starting line healthy" that is a huge accomplishment for a long course distance race! Did you do well with your nutrition strategy yet still ended up feeling like you were going to bonk? Maybe you followed your pacing strategy for the first half (and not so much the second) of the race or followed your nutrition plan to a T? Each one of these controllable factors will help you get closer to having everything come together in your next race and listing those that didn't will help you make adjustments to make sure you don't repeat the same mistakes.
3. Lean on those close to you for support
Having friends and family to talk to during our times of need is a true gift. Take advantage of having a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on, or even just an objective opinion about the day is a great way to start the healing process. Without these people in our lives to celebrate victory or pick us up in times of despair, life can be a pretty dismal place. Take advantage of people's kindness and be ready to step in when they need the same!
4. Do some reading, especially reading centered around other inspirational stories of athletes who have bounced back after trials and tribulations
The beauty of being in this sport together is that most of us have a story to share. Some of those stories are simply amazing. There are countless blogs, books and internet articles chronicling athletes who have overcome huge adversities from beating cancer to athletes like Scott Rigsby who lost both legs in an accident before becoming the first double-amputee on prosthetics in the world to finish an Ironman distance triathlon with prosthetics at the 140.6-mile World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. Revel in these stories and realize that anything is truly possible if we allow ourselves to believe we can overcome and come back stronger than before.
5. After some time, allow yourself to set the next realistic goal
Goals give us something to look forward to and get us back out the door and into our running shoes. If you have a coach, talk with them about what makes sense moving forward while still giving you time to recover from the last race, yet allowing you to find your mojo and get ready for the next. Begin by breaking that goal down into smaller more manageable steps to help you put one foot in front of the other moving in the right direction.
6. Be thankful!
In the end, if our happiness lies more so in the journey to the start line vs. the destination or actual results, we will be much happier and fulfilled in the sport. There are many things to be thankful for in each of our lives and looking around to take notice puts a "not-so-great" race into perspective very quickly. Defining "success" can't necessarily be done by simply looking at a sheet of paper with times on it, instead consider the words of Muhammad Ali:
"Success is not achieved by winning all the time. Real success comes when we rise after we fall. Some mountains are higher than others. Some roads are steeper than the next. There are hardships and setbacks but you cannot let them stop you. Even on the steepest road you must not turn back".
Keeping these ideas in mind as you move forward after a sub-par performance will help you have a long and happy life as an athlete and even as a person. They help to preserve our longevity in the sport and our ability to keep chasing those lofty goals and dreams.
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