Q: How to Bounce Back from a Bad Race (like a Badass)

Hey Lauren,

I am a collegiate runner in my last season of cross country, so it’s really important to make this year special. I just had a race this weekend and I went into it sick. Mentally, I just wasn’t there, knowing that my performance would not be where I would want it to be. I ended up going through the race really slow and ended up dropping out with about 1500m to go. I had some issues with mental confidence last year and I’m really not hoping to go down that road again. Have you ever dropped out of a race? How do you mentally recover from something like that? I really would appreciate your help. We are traveling in two weeks to compete again and I want to be ready. Thanks.



Hey Caitlin,
Thanks for posting a question and I’m REALLY happy you asked this. My first question for you is this: Why is it important that this year be special? So what if it’s your last year of college? What does that matter? For best results, let’s start by getting specific.

Just because something is the “last” of something doesn’t mean it will summon greateness. Forget the timeline. It only adds stress and pressure. Pretend you will run forever, and that this year matters because you’ve worked hard and you’re ready to experience the high of a breakthrough. Think about the specific things that motivate you. Is it your team? Do you want to leave a legacy? Do you want to be a contributing part of something special? Do you want to look back on this year and say “That was the year I really gave it my all. I was so determined and tough and had fun every single race, taking nothing for granted.”

Spend five minutes thinking about that and write down your own reasons why it matters to you. Narrow it down to three things you can control. Being specific is helpful. It’s like zooming in on google maps…you want to get close enough to see the street names so you don’t have to guess where you’re going.

We already know that one of those things that you care about for this year is being mentally tough. You struggled with it last year, and I’m gathering that your last race is getting under your skin because you’re worried the “old you” is still lurking there, waiting to ruin your season. Oh man, I totally know what that’s about! 🙂

Let me assure you that no matter how long you run, you’ll always have at least 2 or 3 moments per season where you think you’re screwed. These moments make you feel like you’re really just the same old weak athlete with yesterday’s issues. Why does this happen? As athletes, we are very accustomed to looking around for external evidence that we are progressing towards our goals: faster workouts, easier efforts, more mileage, a higher finish. This is an easy way to build confidence. The problem is we get too used to looking at external things to determine our confidence, and when those two or three bad things happen per year, we can let them ruin everything. We give too much weight to these bad races, or moments of weakness. The solution? In addition to external sources of confidence, we need to develop strong internal sources of confidence. This is done by subtly shifting the way you think about things.

Personal Example: I remember in 2006, I had trouble doing 1k repeats at racepace. I was doing GREAT at all my other workouts, but 1k reps were terrible every time. In my mind, I let those 1k reps be the big bad wolf, blowing down the house I built all year; it destroyed my confidence and season. I dropped out of three races that summer. Knowing what I know now, I would have given more weight to the things I was doing well, building a house out of bricks instead of sticks, and that way when the big bad wolf came, my house would be unshakable. Who cares if 1k reps weren’t going great. EVERYTHING ELSE WAS.

This is the type of mentality you need to develop this season. Don’t let this one race ruin everything. Put it in it’s place. Take away it’s power by filling your mind with positive things. Notice every good thing that has happened this year and give it weight. Then you’ll see the last race for what it really was: you were sick and it kept you from being your normal badass. That’s not who you are. End of story.

If I were you, I’d make some affirmations like these (but personalize them for you), put them on my mirror and inside my training log and read them every day til my next race.

“I am a better athlete than last year.”

“Fear is natural. I’ll be fine because I want it more than I fear it.”

“I am a badass. Pain’s got nothing on me. I want to see what I can do!”

“I’ve built my season out of bricks. Nothing can shake it.”

It sounds dorky to say these things to yourself, and you should make your own, but it really works. Even after nine years of running professionally, there are still those moments every year that try to ruin things. I’ve learned to expect them. Just knowing they are coming helps me prepare for them, and they have less and less of an effect on me now. I say “Ah, there you are, you little jerk face. I know what to do with you.”

The best way to prepare moving forward is to really take time to notice everything that is going well. Little things and big things alike. Give them a lot of weight. Write them down. In my training journal, I write a ++ next to all days that are above average, a + next to the normal days, and a – when things are worse than normal. At a glance, I can always see that there are WAY more +’s than -‘s, (unless something is really wrong) and this gives me confidence. My log shows an entire month in one view, so I don’t get over dramatic about the day to day.

this is a sample of how I journal, a page from the Believe I Am Diary

This is a sample of how I build positive momentum (and catch overtraining before it gets out of control). Journal can be found at http://believeiam.com

Take time to look back on your past three months and notice them now. I promise you’ll feel ready to blow the bun huggers off all those chicks in your race next weekend 😀



Readers: got any more tips that can help Caitlin out? Any personal experience with rebounding from a bad race successfully? PLEASE post a comment. She’ll appreciate it (and so will the rest of us). To start things off, read Jesse’s last blog for a good story on “Getting Back on the Horse.” (Spoiler alert: he won his next race)