9 Ways to Rebound From a Bad Run or Race

Experienced runners know that not every stint on the track or trail is going to be an exhilarating experience. They also know that, despite proper training, race day may bring insurmountable challenges. It is not uncommon to have a bad run or race.

A slow or difficult run can be disheartening and frustrating. It may even cause you to doubt your commitment to your running routine. But before you turn in your jogging shoes, try these tips to get your love of the sport back on track.

Recover Properly

frustrated runner

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If your bad run happened at a race, don't let your less-than-satisfying finish time get in the way of a proper recovery. Your body needs ample time to rest and rebuild—even after workouts that don't measure up to your highest standards. In fact, it might need recovery even more.

Take at least a day or two to do activities that are easy on your body and minimize impact to your joints. If your race was longer (such as a half marathon, marathon, or ultramarathon) you should take up to a several weeks to recover. Activities might include an easy bike ride, swimming, restorative yoga, or going for an easy walk or hike.

The goal is simply to boost circulation and increase the range of motion in your joints to minimize stiffness and sore muscles.

Figure Out What Went Wrong

When you have a bad run or finish poorly at a race, take some time to mull over why it may have happened. Ask yourself some basic questions.

  • Are you sluggish from overtraining? Then you may need to dial back your training, incorporate cross training, or include active recovery sessions.
  • Did you eat and hydrate properly? If not, change up your pre- and post-exercise diet. Make sure that you are getting enough calories to fuel your workouts and evaluate your macronutrient balance with the help of a nutrition professional.
  • Are you getting enough sleep? An earlier bedtime can help counter fitness fatigue. If you can't get to bed sooner, practice good sleep hygiene (remove phones and electronics from your bedroom, go to bed at the same time each night, etc) to try to improve the quality of your sleep.
  • Are you bored with your routine? Find a new running route or get a friend on board. Join a running group to reinvigorate your training.

If there is no obvious solution for your less-than-satisfying performance, you might also check with your doctor to make sure you don't have an underlying medical condition that could be interfering with your running. 

Remember Why You Run

Even if your training run or race was frustrating and painful, you still gain benefits from participating in the sport of running. Reminding yourself of these reasons can help you overcome frustration.

You may have personal reasons to run, such as the social interaction it provides or the stress release you feel when you hit the road. Or you may run for the health benefits it provides.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) just 150 minutes per week of moderate to vigorous exercise can help to improve your sleep, prevent cancers including breast cancer, colon cancer, lung cancer, and several others. You reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and other chronic conditions. And it can also help you to reach and maintain a healthy weight.

But even if you don't want to look at the long-range benefits that you gain from your workout commitment, the 2018 HHS report says that a single bout of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity will reduce blood pressure, improve insulin sensitivity, improve sleep, reduce anxiety symptoms, and improve cognition on the day that it is performed.

Boost Mental Toughness

A tough training run can offer an important lesson in dealing with the realities of life. Sometimes life is hard and learning to meet challenges on the running trail can help you to handle obstacles in other areas, such as work or family life. In short, managing and recovering from a bad run or race can boost your mental toughness.

If you happen to be training for an endurance event, such as a marathon, difficult running experiences will also give you the tools for dealing with challenging moments during your race. The more you practice them in training, the more prepared and confident you will be when they occur on race day.

And if your disappointing run happened on race day, then the experience can prepare you for future races. Remember that there is always another race in your future.

Journal or Blog

Keeping a training journal or blogging about your running experiences is a great way to keep tabs on your progress. It can also help you to sort through the different challenges that occur during a run or a race.

Writing about the agony (as well as the ecstasy) of your efforts can help you to work through your frustration and sort through the details of your runs. Putting these thoughts on paper can help you to reflect on the challenges and solutions later before another race or training run.

As you gain entries in your training log, simply reviewing the wealth of information you have collected also helps to remind you of the time and effort you put into training. That, in itself, is an accomplishment to be proud of.

Talk It Up

All runners have days when it's tough to get through a run. It doesn't matter if you are a beginner or an elite athlete. It can be helpful to remember that you are in good company.

Join a running group or ask your running friends or colleagues about their challenging race experiences. Inquire about the things that discourage them and how they overcome those challenges. Talking it through helps you to become more creative about solutions and helps you to gain insight from others to manage future runs.

Knowing you're not alone will go a long way toward easing any anxiety you may be feeling about running and as a bonus, you'll likely gather some great coping tips.

Do a Goal Check

Some runners set goals that are too lofty and those goals may need to be revisited. It doesn't mean that you need to ditch your goal but you may need to set secondary or smaller goals to accomplish before tackling the main one.

For example, if you're a casual runner, the idea of completing a marathon may seem enticing. But if you've never participated in shorter distance event, a marathon might be overwhelming, especially if you set an aggressive time goal.

While setting a stretch goal can be a good source of motivation, over-stretching can lead to frustration and defeat. Consider signing up for a few races that offer a reasonable challenge but an attainable goal. Then increase the challenge slowly to reach your main goal.

Stay Positive

There is always a bright side. The silver lining of having a bad run is that it helps you better appreciate the great runs. If you need to, take a few minutes to sulk a bit after a terrible run, but then look back on all the others that have been exciting and fun.

Think about the incredible experience of having a runner's high and know that that same intoxicating feeling is within your grasp the next time you lace on your shoes. Remember the races when you performed better than you thought you would. This is another area where a training log is helpful.

Use these memories to lift yourself up and soldier on.

Schedule a Confidence-Boosting Workout

Don't let a bad run or race discourage you from maintaining your commitment to training. It's important to get back on the horse and put your program back on track. But to do so, you should schedule a run or a workout that is guaranteed to boost your confidence.

Perhaps there is a fun run in your neighborhood that is not timed and will include friends and family members. Or maybe you can go for an easy jog on a familiar course that you know you can run with ease. And perhaps when you head out the door on your next few runs, you leave your GPS watch at home so you don't feel pressured to maintain a fast pace.

Each of these activities will help you to reconnect with your love of running and help to remind yourself of the headway you've already made to get yourself in the physical shape that you're in. Try to schedule them in the days following your bad race or run.

By Christine Luff, ACE-CPT
Christine Many Luff is a personal trainer, fitness nutrition specialist, and Road Runners Club of America Certified Coach.