How to Recover from a Bad Race
For a runner, there are a few things as upsetting as a bad race. After all, training for a race takes discipline, weeks of training, monitoring diet and hydration, and making other lifestyle adjustments. But every runner knows that a race day is fraught with many unknowns, despite the best training you may have put in.
Even elite runners are not exempt from having a bad race.. While you cannot control everything when it comes to race day, knowing what to do after a bad race can help you cope with an unsatisfactory performance.
Here, we explain the common reasons behind a bad race experience while suggesting a few questions that you could ask yourself in order to understand what may have gone wrong.
1. Did you train for the race?
The day and place of the race can be very different from what you are generally accustomed to while training. The weather conditions, the course of the race, or fuel at the aid-station can involve many surprises, which might have influenced your performance.
What to do
- Studying the course elevation map carefully can eliminate surprises. For example, It is important to know if you will have an 8% incline coming up at the 38km mark in a full marathon, which has an approximate distance of 42km. You may experience deep fatigue during this time, and negotiating a steep incline can bring you to a grinding halt. Similarly, analyze how the route is laid. Studying the course can also give you an understanding of whether the route loops around several times or if it is an out-and-back route, or if the finish line is at a different location from the start line.
- Know the temperature and humidity of the race location to plan your pacing strategy. A warm and humid environment changes your lactate threshold, which will substantially influence your running speed and strategy.
- Training your gut to the available fueling options at the aid-station is also necessary. If you have been training on specific electrolytes and nutrition in your long runs, you may want to know what exactly is served at aid stations. It’s best to not try anything new on race day. So, if they are unavailable at the aid stations, you may carry your own gels in a pouch.
2. Did you start out too fast?
If you feel you are running too fast, you are. The start of a race can be quite exciting and you may find it difficult to hold yourself back. When you run fast and continue running at that pace, your body experiences rapid lactic acid buildup in the muscles. This leads to muscle cramps, pain, and fatigue, which will influence your performance.
What to do
It is recommended to start slow and find a good running rhythm in the initial few kilometers instead of going too fast, too soon. Or use these tricks to track your speed:
- If you used a GPS watch during the race, you can review the data for splits, which should give you an idea of what your pace was for different sections of the race.
- GPS connectivity can be distorted under some conditions, bungling the data. In such conditions, markers on the road can be an effective reference point to check your pace in the first few kilometers.
- You could also consider using a pacing band, which is a simple wristband that lists time-markers you could follow for every mile or kilometer.
- Studying and tracking your heart rate data, collected from your heart rate monitoring devices, is another way to map your speed. You could identify your lactate threshold, which is the point where your body is producing more lactate than it can use. You could look back at the heart rate data from the race and spot the heart rate that is higher than normal, which can indicate you were either running too fast, or running in a warm condition.
If you have the data on splits from your earlier performances, you may compare the two and likely find the answer whether or not you lost steam later in the race because you had put in too great an effort in the first half of the race. You may use this data to create your pacing strategy.
3. Did you hydrate enough?
There is no alternative to good hydration when it comes to racing — you should be well hydrated before, during, and after your race. Failing to maintain a good balance of water and electrolyte intake for your run can put you at a risk of dehydration, especially if you are running in hot and humid weather.
Poor hydration impairs your ability to maintain your core body temperature. Running increases your body temperature, which is controlled or cooled down through sweating. Dehydration leads to heat exhaustion, as the sweat rate decreases.
What to do
- A good rule is to hydrate every 30 mins and drink 500ml of water with electrolytes every hour.
- Hydrating for a race or a run begins even before you reach the start line. While it is advisable to stay well hydrated at all times, it is especially important for runners to ensure this throughout their training routine. Having a hydration plan for your race and noting the aid stations along your route can be helpful. Along with adequate water intake, it is also important to consume enough electrolytes or electrolyte-rich sports drinks to maintain amounts of fluid and salt in the body, which can be lost via sweat while running.
4. Did you run out of energy due to low glycogen?
Glycogen, which is the stored form of glucose, is the main fuel source for running. Sudden loss of energy indicates that there is not enough glycogen or sugar left to power the working muscles. As a result, your body tends to slow down, and you may eventually come to a halt. Low glycogen could also affect one mentally, causing confusion and leading to fatigue.
What to do
- As you start running, the body utilizes the stored glycogen for generating energy and eventually the reserve starts running out. Therefore, it is essential to fuel well before the race to adequately replace the used glycogen during the race.
- It is equally essential to eat well right after the race to replenish the carb and protein stores in your body and to promote recovery. Proper fueling and nutrition should not just be a race-day concern, but should also be practiced during training.
Muscle cramps lead to poor race performance. Common causes for cramping include poor hydration and electrolyte intake, or muscle fatigue.
What to do
To prevent cramping and side-stitch, it is important to stay well hydrated and maintain proper water, electrolyte balance, and avoid eating a large meal before the run. To reduce early muscle fatigue, combine running with strength training with a special focus on strengthening your core and lower body muscles in your training routine.
6. Exhaustion on race day
The benefits of good sleep on your running performance is often understated. Although poor sleep may not affect your physical endurance, it can hamper your running performance. Some mental effects of inadequate sleep include poor cognition, irritability, and mood changes. In fact with insufficient sleep, a relatively easy effort run may seem more strenuous, causing a higher perceived effort. Moreover, sleep plays an important role in muscle building and recovery that are crucial to build strength. Chronic sleep deprivation can also affect your motivation and cognition, which can lead to increased anxiety, thus affecting your running performance.
What to do
Good sleep can be an effective training tool. Make sure that you get at least 7-9 hours of good quality sleep every night.
How to recover from a bad race
Identifying the causes behind a bad race can go a long way in helping you rectify mistakes and enable you to practice caution for the next training or race. Let us now break down the process on how to cope with and recover from a bad race.
1. After finishing the race
It is normal to feel disappointed after a poor race performance. You may want to spend time replaying your race in your head to figure out what went wrong. However, it is important to remember that the race may have taken a physical toll on you, and now is time to focus on recovery.
Immediately after you cross the finish line, make sure to stretch, hydrate, consume electrolytes, and eat a snack to replenish your carbohydrate and protein reserves. Once you reach home, shower, eat a proper meal, and get some sleep.
Also read: How to Recover Well from a Race
2. The next day
Every race, even a bad race can be a learning experience. Analyse what went wrong during the race and the days before to find out the reasons for your unsatisfactory performance. You can start by distinguishing between the factors that you had no control over, eg, the weather, and the factors that were under your control, such as your pacing or fueling. You can make a note to discuss these with your coach or an experienced runner, as they can give you more insights and even help you rectify these before your next race.
3. The next few days
Remember why you run. You either took up running as a stressbuster or to achieve specific health goals or perhaps to complete a marathon. Recall your earlier runs and the excitement you felt while training. Now that you have analysed your performance, set your negative thoughts aside and focus on your training again.
4. Maintain a training diary
A training diary tracks your runs over days, weeks and months. This information can help you assess how far you’ve come and if you need to modify any parameters for better performance. You can log information such as distance, pace, effort, terrain, weather, nutrition, hydration, etc. You can also enter the details of the race, including what you did right and what went wrong. It will help you keep track of the factors you need to work on during the course of your training.
5. Set a new goal
The best way to move forward after a bad race is to set a new race goal. If your race went bad because your goal was unrealistic in terms of distance (say a marathon), target one that is shorter (say a half marathon), so that it serves to boost your confidence before you aim at longer distances again. If factors like terrain and weather were responsible for your poor performance, you can train under similar conditions or surfaces, and optimize your training and nutrition to ensure that your body adapts well to running under such conditions.
6. Get back to training
Draw up a fresh training plan in line with your new goal. Ensure that you now focus on the process rather than the outcome. The process is not only exciting, but also a learning experience in helping you become a better runner. The micro-planning of each run, each week will help bring in consistency that will ultimately translate into better running performance.
Any experience, whether good or bad, teaches you perseverance and equips you to take up challenges in your future races. Remember, that a bad race is not a cue to give up. In fact, these learnings will become stepping stones to performing better in the next one!