I don't really like the words fail or failure.
Perhaps if you give up and never try again, you can consider yourself a failure but I know you would never ever give up without someday, trying again.
I believe that when things do not go our way, we are presented with an opportunity to learn. And as the saying goes, if you don't change, don't expect things to change.
In the beginning of my endurance racing career (triathlons/running) I found myself adapting quickly to training stress and seeing quick performance gains. I found every race to be a success because each race was a new experience for my body and mind.
Overtime, I found it harder to chase times for I didn't understand why I couldn't perform the same speed (or faster) at every race in a season.
Over the past few years, Karel and I adapted a training philosophy of training smarter to train harder and with that comes racing smart. In my last blog, I gave some of my tips on racing smart but what I didn't discuss was the aftermath.
What if you do everything right in training, everything right in your race and still, the results that you want don't come?
Or, what if you haven't yet created the physical and mental skill set yet to understand how to insert your fitness from training into a great race day performance.
Here are a few tips on how to learn from a race that didn't meet your expectations:
1. Reflect: If you constantly dwell on what should have happened, you will never accept what you need to change. It's likely that if you didn't go into your race injured, overtrained or without proper fitness, you are seeing your past race as a failure because "something" didn't go right. Well, think back as to what you thought was going to help you have a great race to see if there's something that you can change for next time.
Many times athletes will talk about specific sections during the race, nutrition, pacing etc. that was spot-on to the plan during the race. Once you identify these variables that you thought were well-practiced or "per the plan" put pieces together to see if there's something that you can tweak to help you have a better race performance. Maybe it's nutrition, pacing, heat acclimatization or skills or perhaps it's simple mental strength or the timing of your race. Whatever it is, be open to change and be sure to practice, practice, practice for next time.
Be sure to use every training session as an opportunity to practice your "race day" nutrition, pacing, mental focus and gear/clothing use.
2. Don't rush recovery - I see many athletes jump right back into training or sign-up quickly for another race in an effort to re-do what didn't go well in the previous race. There may be some good in this if you get a mechanical on the bike in a triathlon and are unable to finish a race or bad weather cancels a race. However, if you didn't get the results you wanted at your last race, be respectful to the body for there's likely a big red flag in front of your face letting you know that you need to rest or focus on your health. It's very easy to see a race as a failure and convince yourself that you now need to train harder and longer but perhaps you just need to train and race smarter.
Always remember how long it has taken your body to train for the race before you convince yourself that you only need a few days or a week to recovery fully from a race.
3. Don't take it out on your body - It's very easy to get mad at your body during or after a race for it didn't perform how you expected it to perform. Rather than telling yourself that you need to lose (more) weight, be faster or be stronger, analyze your race after your emotions settle down. Be kind to your body for it didn't have to let you get to the starting line and if you got the finish line without having your ideal performance, consider yourself lucky that you could have easily accepted a DNF. If you do have to quit your race, do this with your health as top priority - not because you are weak or not tough enough.
It's very hard to have the perfect race at every race. Some athletes will do great at the beginning of the season and then suffer with fatigue as the year continues. Some athletes can tolerate the heat in early Spring whereas other athletes need months of summer training to help the body learn how to better tolerate the heat. There are many physiological adaptations that take place with training and many times, the body just needs time to adapt and to peak properly.
Pacing and nutrition are two very important components of your race to ensure that you stay hydrated, fueled and that you postpone fatigue. However, don't overlook what you did going into your race. Where you overtrained, did you taper properly, are you overcoming an injury, is this a stressful time in your life? Don't just crunch the numbers. Consider the big puzzle and all the pieces involved.
4. Keep your eyes on your goals - Sometimes you have to change the plan but never change the goals. If you have a goal and it isn't met at one race, don't give up. Every athlete has a bad race but for most of us, we aren't racing for a paycheck. Sometimes a bad race can fire-up an athlete for his/her next race or give the athlete the motivation he/she needs to take training up a notch. Consider your season as a whole and not just one race. By carefully planning your season and considering your short and long term goals, you won't be so pressured to perform amazingly great at every race but instead, make every race count.
Set small goals to reach along the way. Some athletes do great with tune-up races (B-race) whereas other athletes need more "testing" in workouts to assess current level of fitness. Never underestimate the beauty of breaking up your season so that you are following a periodized training plan that allows for proper adaptation and peaking and recovery as you move yourself closer to your goals.
5. Enjoy the journey and manage expectations - There may be a race or two in your season that you are open to trying something new on race day. Perhaps you are willing to leave it all out on the course in order to see what will happen. Although this thinking may come with a success story at the end, it's also very risky to go into a race without a plan......a plan that allows you to race with your current level of fitness.No matter what race you are training for, remember the journey that your amazing body is letting you go on. No matter what happens on race day, your race doesn't define who you are as a human being. Slow and fast are relative to who you consider faster or slower than you. A great day or bad day can be decided by the weather, competition or course and not necessarily by your current level of fitness which may be exactly where it needs to be.
Your sport is a lifestyle so remember that you have to take care of your body just as hard as you train. Rather than comparing yourself to others or always feeling as if you should do more, discover a plan that works for you so that you can discover greatness on race day with your body.
Any sport psychologist will tell you (the athlete) that you must be process-focused instead of outcome-focused. You can't be so caught-up on the race day performance that you lose sight of your journey.
Your finishing time does not define you as a person and there are going to be ups and downs in racing as well as in training.
Just because you don't meet a time or placing goal, doesn't mean you are failure. Consider the race day experience and what you can learn from it for next time. If you did "well" at every race, you will never learn how to overcome obstacles when they come in the future.
Training and racing doesn't have to be black or white, all or nothing. Be mindful of any signs in your training that may increase the risk for injury or burnout or may cause you to save your best performance for race day. Similarly, be respectful of your body in hot/very cold weather as well as on a challenging course.
Never lose confidence as an athlete. If you were able to commit to months/weeks of training for a race, trust that you have the ability to execute in a race. Perhaps the last race wasn't the ideal race (or the right timing) for you to put your full mind, pacing, and fueling strategy to good use but you are still a hard working athlete.
There's nothing more exciting than bouncing back from a disappointing race (or setback) and experiencing success at the next race.
I can't wait to see what you can do at your next race!!!