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How to Bounce Back From a Bad Race

"Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure… then to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat." -Theodore Roosevelt

Let's face it: bad races happen. We all have them. They're certainly not fun and don't give us a warm fuzzy feeling, but bad races are part of racing. It's important to not get too down when the cards don't fall your way on race day. It's also important to acknowledge that a "bad" race for you might have been a great result for someone else. Bad races are subjective - only you (and your coach) determine where the race falls on the spectrum of your capabilities at that specific moment in time.

One good thing about the long-distance triathlons, such as IRONMAN events, is that you can have bad moments during the race. We all usually do. We can have a bad hour in a 12-hour race, but rebound and still have a good race. IRONMAN Tulsa last year was a bad race for my wife, and many other teammates struggled at specific times, but there were also PRs that day and my wife still reached her goal to qualify for Kona. The pictures below show a snapshot of that day.

triathlon coach tips

I've outlined 5 steps that I go through when I have a bad race. They are half in jest/half serious. But they're all feelings that I've had when things don't go my way. It's important to always pick your head up and keep going. Find the problem and fix it, but keep believing in yourself and what you are capable of.

Dealing with a bad race goes hand in hand with dealing with adversity, and a reminder that sport is a safe place to fail.

triathlon coach tips

Denying your bad race

That's what people say, right? - Denial is the first stage. Before you can admit to mediocrity, it's only human to deny there was a failure and it could have been avoided. Whether it's a sub-par performance or a DNF, our first approach is usually to brush a bad race off like it's not a big deal. Maybe it hasn't quite hit home yet or maybe it's too bitter to accept at this point. It's hard and socially awkward to be sad when you're friends are setting PRs and having great races, so the best thing to do is pretend like you're unaffected. Deep down you may know you're disappointed, but it hasn't really set in yet. You have to make a good appearance and there are too many logistics to handle with picking up your stuff, showering, packing and traveling home to worry about how much you hate facing failure. That comes next.

Post-Race Depression

triathlon coach tips

Deep, dark depression. Let's not gloss over this. Unfortunately that pretense of apathy was all a lie. This stage is where you find yourself removed from the race, from all the hubbub and distraction, and it hits you: you failed reaching your goals. It's a terrible feeling and tough to shake. That feeling of hopelessness—the feeling that maybe you just aren't very good or can never get better hits everyone at some point in their athletic career. I highly recommend a pre-determined time to wallow in self pity. Many athletes I've talked to have a "24 hour" or "48 hour" rule. They can feel sorry for themselves for that permitted time. It's ok to be disappointed, sad, and depressed when you have a bad race. Go ahead an enter that cave of depression. Just remember you can only stay there for 24 hours and no chainring self-mutilation is allowed.


This stage of resolve is where you begin climbing out of the black abyss and determine that you are worth more than your failures in races. That inner fire is re-kindled and it's time to do something about it. You WILL give it another shot. Take that disappointment from a poor performance and channel it towards a renewed since of determination and set a new goal.

Form a Plan

triathlon coach tips

I'm a firm believer that there is usually a reason why someone has a bad race. Whether it was an obvious reason (ate bad seafood the night before, not enough sleep during the week, an injury, etc.) or a less-apparent underlying factor (training plan design, lifestyle management, a few too many missed workouts), I think there is usually a cause.

Now that you have renewed determination and resolve, it's important to design a plan to address the reason for your poor result. If you got injured, then WHY did the injury occur? Have you been injured before? Is there a variable you aren't controlling that can be controlled? If it's training plan design, then do you have a good coach? Did you follow your coach's instructions? How often did you miss or have to re-arrange key workouts? All those little things add up and can contribute to a poor result.

The best results I've seen from my athletes come from those who put in week after week and month after month of consistent, balanced training. They make slow but steady progress because they don't miss very many days and they get the work done. You may have more than one issue that needs to be addressed. Find it and fix it.

Find the Issues and Fix Them.

triathlon coach tips


Now comes the fun/hard/scary part: executing your new plan and approaching that start line again with no fear of failure. Don't be afraid to attack your goal with everything you have.

The worst you can do is fail. And that's okay.

So, here are 5 tips to get back to the start line with confidence:

1. Treat it like just another race.

By this point in the season you’ve probably raced at least once or twice already. Some of us may have competed 10 or more times while maybe others have only done a few local races. Nonetheless, you’ve been through the routine, you’ve lost your bike in transition, you’ve waited in those long porta-pottie lines, maybe you’ve even forgotten something absolutely crucial like bike shoes (or insoles- true story, I've done that), goggles or a water bottle. In summary- this ain’t your first rodeo. If you think of the big race just like any other race you’ve done- that is, maybe you don’t think about it too much, then there’s no reason to get worked up about it and you won’t have to combat those energy draining nerves.

2. Look back over your training log from the year.

Hopefully you keep some sort of record of the training you do throughout the year. If you do have a log then get it out and start flipping through the year you’ve had. You’ve come many, many miles since the start of this season. You’ve probably had way more early mornings than you wanted and suffered a lot more in sessions than you originally planned to. Sure, there are some blank days in there and times you completely bombed the workout, but let your eyes gloss over those and key in on the successful days you’ve had. Look at how you’ve knocked out some really good days of training even when you were tired. Recognize the strength you’ve shown grinding through sessions and sometimes even smashing them despite being fatigued. Draw on all of that for confidence and know that the hard work just doesn’t go away. You can execute on race day just like you’ve executed in countless training sessions.

3. Know that all you can do is do your best.

As cliché as it sounds to just “do your best,” it really stands true when it comes to racing. Pre-race anxiety comes because we are comparing ourselves to our competition or a time standard. If you remove all expectation of performance and just determine to give your best effort on the day then there is no need to be anxious. You KNOW you can push yourself hard because you’ve done it in training. You know what pain is, you know adversity, none of those things are new and you’ve triumphed already countless times in your daily training and life. A race is just another chance to give the best effort you’re capable of and push yourself as hard as you can.

4. Be grateful for the opportunity to race.

The physical talents we have are a blessing and the ability to do a triathlon should not be taken for granted. Many people race for a cause or after having overcome cancer or another disease. What a great reminder of how blessed we are to be fit and well enough to compete.

5. Celebrate.

Racing is a chance to express the hard work you’ve done. Treat the race as a celebration of your health, your fitness and the journey you’ve had along the way. We spend most of our time on that journey and racing is just a chance to commemorate all the good (and miserable) times we’ve had along the way.

triathlon coach tips

Climb out of the bad races and prepare yourselves for the good ones. Relish the opportunities you’re given. Seize the day and have fun!!

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