You had a Bad Race. Now What?

Overcoming the Negative

By: Jess Smith

Can you believe it’s already July and the North American triathlon season is in full-swing?  You’ve put in months of early morning masters swims, countless hours on the trainer and outdoors, and miles upon miles of pounding the pavement.  Now, it’s finally time to let all your hard work pay off and RACE!   

But what about when race day goes astray?  Training is a journey full of peaks, plateaus, and valleys, and I know you make a lot of sacrifices to reach your goals.  Maybe it’s skipping dessert or a late night movie with your spouse.  Maybe it’s missing happy hour with friends so you can squeeze in a workout before dinner.  And you make all these sacrifices in hopes for a fantastic race, NOT because you hope to walk your Ironman marathon…but it happens.  (Trust me all of the RTTC coaches KNOW from experience).

Recently, I’ve been talking with friends and teammates who had less-than-stellar performances in their early season races this year.  These conversations got me reflecting on my own experiences with race disappointment and my techniques to bounce back. My goal is to help others in the same boat employ these same techniques to get back to successful racing.

There’s nothing better than the feeling when training is going really well.  Everything clicks.  You feel strong and your racing is powerful. It’s easy to maintain your fitness between races when you are seeing positive results. But what do you do when you have been working your tail off and things aren’t going the way you expected?  It’s easy to throw in the towel after a bad race or training week (and perhaps dive into a whole bottle of wine or a pint of Ben and Jerry’s?) but once you realize you still love triathlon it’s time for a re-evaluation!

Evaluating the self isn’t a hard sell for most triathletes as we are likely to obsess about every detail of our training, racing, diet, and sleep anyway.  But often after a bad race we think we just need to train harder or longer when really the issue is deeper.  First we need to identify the REAL problem.  Only then, we’ll find the solution. 

I think answering the following questions (HONESTLY) could be a great start in figuring out how to get back on the right track after a bad race.

1.     Are your expectations realistic? 
Too often in triathlon we put the cart before the horse – I certainly did when I turned pro.  It’s great to have big goals long term, but you need smaller, more attainable goals to focus on in the short term.  If you have never raced a triathlon before don’t worry about WINNING your first race, focus on FINISHING! Your short term goals should be set based on your training (i.e. if you run 9 minute miles in training, don’t have your short term goals include 7 minute miles in your next race).  While it might be an awesome long-term goal, it’s probably not realistic just yet.

Short term goals should also be fluid.  If you get sick or injured, or some life event puts training slightly on the back burner, re-adjust your goals. Don’t hold yourself to the same standard of a perfect training cycle!  You are only setting yourself up for failure, frustration, and disappointment.  I like to have “perfect conditions” goals and contingency goals.  By doing this I can stay focused on progressing and moving FORWARD, no matter what adversity life throws my way.

2.     Are you too focused on the results and not the process?
 I can’t tell you how many times I have heard, “I want to win my age group”, or “I want to break xx hours”, or “I want a PR”, or “I want to qualify for Kona."  It seems to make sense that you would have time or place goals.  I mean you are either racing the clock or other people in your age group, right?  Sure! But unfortunately, focusing on those end result goals can cause us to do silly things in our races!  You might end up thinking about that time goal too much and you forget to eat or drink.  Or you might worry about getting passed so you bike too hard and leave nothing for the run.  Sometimes it’s important to take a step back and set goals completely in your control.

Too often we get fixated on the end result and forget to focus on getting there. You can’t control who your competition will be on race day or how fast they will go, so don’t set goals based on other people (i.e. winning your AG).  You can’t control the weather conditions and some courses are just harder than others so don’t set goals based on time. You can, however, control how well you follow your nutrition plan and how well you pace your swim, bike, and run.  I love to set goals like, “I’m going to keep my HR at xxx for the bike” (because I KNOW from training it’s the right pace for me) or “my goal is to be able to run really strong the last few miles." These are attainable goals if you stick to your race plan and 9 times out of 10 you’ll achieve your time/place goals anyway!

3.     Did you work as hard on your race strategy as you did in your training? 
It doesn’t matter how hard you work in training if you don’t plan for HOW you are going to race.  Executing a plan is vital or you will never race to your true potential.  Sure, you might still have a solid day but think how much better it could have been if you followed your nutrition plan or maintained a steady pace on that hilly bike course?  Your race strategy should be based on your training, as well as the course and the conditions.  And you know what they say – practice makes perfect – so be sure to incorporate your plan for race day in your training.

4.     Have you dialed in your nutrition?
This seems like something so easy to manage during a race, but many people still struggle here the most.  The most common mistakes are (in no particular order):

  • I tried a different nutrition strategy for the first time on race day – NEVER TRY ANYTHING NEW ON RACE DAY! If you have never trained with salt tabs, don’t race with them. If you normally train with Clif bars, don’t eat Bonk Breakers.  If your tummy could talk it would tell you not all race nutrition is created equal (I suppose our tummies do talk if we get it wrong!).  It might take you awhile to get the race day formula right so start practicing NOW! 
  • I forgot to eat – While it seems ridiculous in the countless hours of tedious racing we could possibly forget to eat, it’s actually quite easy to do!  Racing almost always suppresses hunger so even the yummiest bars and blocks will be unappealing.  Set up a system to remind yourself to eat and commit to having at least a few calories periodically throughout the day.  I like to set my watch to beep at me every 15 minutes at which point I force down part of a bar or a couple Clif bloks.
  • I didn’t want to waste time – I realize sometimes you have to slow a bit to eat (although this will be improved if you practice your nutrition in training).  Maybe you don’t want to stop for your special needs bag because it takes an extra 30 seconds.  Maybe you barely get any electrolyte drink on the run because you are running too fast to get the liquid from those tiny cups to your mouth! You might save a few seconds here or there, but as I and many others have learned the hard way, it can cost you MINUTES later when you run out of energy and end up walking instead of running.

5.     Is your training working for you?
This is a hard question to answer for most people.  A race is a snapshot of your fitness and how you are feeling on ONE DAY.  It’s not necessarily an indicator something is going wrong in the big picture.  So how do you know if it is? Here are some clues you might have a bigger issue in your training:

a.     You have struggled with injury and illness A LOT in the past few months

b.     You frequently have to cut workouts short or take extra days off to recover

c.     Your race wasn’t just one bad day, but ANOTHER bad day in a series of tough races

d.     Your weight is the same or even a little higher than in the off-season

e.     You have great numbers in training, but feel gassed and out of shape on race day, or don’t seem to have the endurance to finish those longer events

f.      You have chronic fatigue or swelling

g.     You have trouble sleeping at night or concentrating during the day (some of this is normal, but you shouldn’t feel like this ALL the time!)

If you are dealing with any or all of these issues, it’s time to take a step back.  After your last bad race, it’s tempting to want to race again as soon as possible to wipe away the bad result from your mind.  I urge you to take a breather and use these questions above to re-evaluate your training and goals.  Don’t forget to be patient.  Change doesn’t happen overnight but if you stay positive, get some outside guidance, adjust your short term and long-term goals, and focus on the bigger picture, it will come.

Always remember why you started competing in triathlons.  Remember how strong you truly are and even if your season isn’t going quite the way you wanted, it doesn’t mean it will be like this forever.

I believe your race season can be everything you dreamed of AND MORE! And don’t forget to have FUN! I don’t think there’s any truer phrase I have heard relating to triathlon than, “If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong!”


Jess Smith is a professional triathlete and coach for Rising Tide Triathlon Coaching.  Have questions about training with us?  CLICK HERE.  And make sure to visit us on FaceBook, Instagram and Twitter!