It never feels good to put in a big training block in anticipation of the highlight event, only to have it not work out. No matter how much we talk about intrinsic motivation, it is human nature to want positive feedback for something into which we’ve invested our heart and soul. If you miss your goal, it’s natural to feel bummed out, at least for a little while. But then what? What are the takeaways from a bad race, and how do you move forward?
Assess what went wrong.
Not accomplishing your “A” goal can happen for a number of reasons: mechanical failure; nutritional miscalculation; an error in pacing strategy; even just difficult conditions. The longer the event, the more opportunity there is for things to go wrong. However, it’s pretty rare to completely blow every element of a race; there are usually one or two critical mistakes or misfortunes. That’s why it’s important to slice and dice all your events to take what lessons you can.
Try to identify what you did well, so you may replicate those elements in the future—and isolate them from your mistakes, so they can be fixed for next time. It may not feel like it, but you are well on your way to achieving success at your next big race.
Review your last six months of training.
Look back on your last six months for both errors and successes. Where did you start? Were you healthy or injured? Did you build a proper foundation of fitness? Did you over-race? Maybe you had physical setbacks or perhaps an atypical life schedule with work, family or travel? If so, was it realistic to have high expectations?
My observation is that athletes who tend to get on a roll in training and are able to back up successful training cycles without a lot of adjustments tend to have much higher odds of success on race day. It’s good to take a bird’s eye view of your training leading into your key event, and adjust your expectations accordingly.
Analyze the dynamics of race day.
Were you prepared for the heat, cold or altitude? Did you properly prepare your equipment (tires, gearing and race wheels) before the race to prevent a mechanical mishap? Were you in some unusual competitive situations which required tactical decisions, creating unusual stress (such as extra contact in an open water swim) or drove irregular pacing? Ultimately you want to analyze your specific preparation for the particular race venue. Then consider if you addressed those race conditions in your training and pre-race planning.
Analyze your mental state.
Reflect on how the day unfolded physically and how you managed it mentally. Were you overly anxious or calm? How did your mental space in a failed race compare to that in successful experiences? When things got hard, where did your head go? Did you persevere or did you give up?
When someone looks strong and passes you, or surges, it’s common to doubt your abilities or wonder if you’re up to the task. But one key element of mental training is learning to refocus and stay internally driven, even when facing unusual, stressful or competitive situations. Champion athletes learn to recognize physical discomfort as a component of going fast, and they learn to tune into factors they are capable of controlling. Visualize maintaining a calm, focused disposition when your body is under physical stress, and you’re well on your way to a mentally stronger race.
Our greatest learning can come from our biggest failures, which force us to look inward and also at our preparation. Organize your findings meaningfully and then decide how you will address these in your next training progression. This will likely mean physical and mental goal setting, and could require big adjustments to your seasonal training plan.
Remember that learning and improvement come from creating a developmental pathway for yourself, or building steps to get from where you are to where you want to be. Be methodical about creating incremental tasks, and measuring progress along the way.
It’s also important to revisit the reasons why you participate in your sport. What is it that motivates you? Is it the love and excitement of starting an event, or feeling good about getting fit and moving efficiently? Perhaps it’s the adventures you experience in training along the way? When you have a well-defined reason for racing, a poor result can inspire increased motivation and a refreshed look at your training environment.