So You Missed Your Splits or Lost Your Race—Now What?
How failing in training and racing can make you a stronger runner
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It’s Tuesday. No, it’s not only Tuesday. It’s critical velocity day. My coach has assigned me two warm-up miles and six 600 meters in 3:13-3:21 intervals, with a 90 second jog between each one. I head out to smash the workout. I’m confident. I’m excited. Then, I start. It’s blistering hot. Sweat is dragging all my face sunscreen down my forehead into my eyes. Water sloshes in my stomach. I’m so thirsty but I can’t drink anymore or I’ll puke. I start to slow. Miss my paces. What is happening? My head spins and I get this horrible gut-wrenching feeling as I pull through the last interval. My coach is going to be disappointed. My Strava record is going to be humiliating. Because I absolutely, undoubtedly failed this run.
Thinking of yourself or your run as a failure can be debilitating and keep you down for days. For a while, I thought I needed to stifle this feeling. But as it turns out, I should be making nice with failure rather than fighting it.
The ‘F’ Word: Failing a Workout
So what exactly does it mean to fail a run? It looks different for everyone, but to many people in the running community, it means missing the splits you or your coach has set for yourself. You can fail in training and fail in a race – both are equally debilitating for a runner. However, running coach and founder of Run Your Best, Cory Smith, says this doesn’t always mean running too slow.
“A lot of people think the faster you run, the better,” he says. “But if you’re trying to hit a certain zone or train a certain adaptation and you run too fast, then you’re training something different than your coach wanted you to train, that can be a failure, too.”
In fact, Smith doesn’t believe going slower than your faces should be defined as the typical, negative definition of failure.
“Failure is data collection,” he says. “It’s learning information. If I fail a workout, it doesn’t make me a failure as a person or an athlete, it’s just an opportunity to look at the data and figure out how to grow from it.”
Oftentimes you’ll hear runners call it the “F word” or scold others for talking about failure, but mental endurance coach, Vanessa Foerster, wants people to use the word. She echoes the same thing as Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone – “Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.” (That’s the only Harry Potter reference, I swear.) Foerester believes shying away from the word or thought of failure gives it more power.
“We have an opportunity, with our language, to normalize failure,” she says. “If we can redefine it, we change our relationship with it.”
What both Foerster and Smith stress the most is that one bad workout doesn’t make or break you. Smith compares it to basing your retirement fund on one day when the market went down, even though we know it goes up and down all the time.
“The most powerful thought around failure is that one workout never makes or breaks a race or athlete,” Foerester says. “We’re in a constant state of learning, if we open ourselves up to be.”
Beating yourself up over a workout can often bleed into your next run, creating a sort of downward spiral effect.
“It puts you into a negative mindset, and then the next workout you’re going to put more pressure on yourself to do well to convince yourself that last workout was just a fluke,” Smith says. “This leads to anxiety, which can hurt your workout performance.”
One study reports that a negative emotional state can hinder athletic performance. Speed, specifically, was proven to be affected by emotional state. This study examined the correlation between sadness and depression and reduced running speeds, head movements, and arm swinging.
In other words, failure can be heavy, if you let it.
An Upsetting UTMB: Failing a Race
Like we said, failure looks different for everyone. So far, we’ve been talking about failing during training sessions – which can be referred to as process failure. An outcome failure, however, is not meeting an end-result or goal which the training was put forth for. Like a race.
For Addie Bracy, it looks like an uncharacteristic 116th place in the 100k CC. Bracy is an elite trail runner, placing first in the 2023 Behind the Rocks Ultra Race and third in the 2023 Speedgoat 50K. She has a consistent track record across the board and even has her masters in Sport and Performance Psychology.
“I had a pretty poor performance,” she says, reflecting. “Objectively, one of the worst I’ve ever had in trail running, and certainly not the race I trained for.”
Bracy says she can’t pinpoint a rhyme or reason why, but that it just wasn’t clicking that day. At a certain point, she realized the race wasn’t going the way she thought and reframed her mindset. Failure, in her definition, is only when you give up – and she chose not to.
“I think that’s the beauty of ultras – they’re so long that you’re going through the mental process then and there,” she says. “I had thoughts of stopping, but I went through the mentality of ‘That’s not what you do this,’ and gave my best effort to focus on just finishing instead of making a certain time.”
This is what Smith identifies as performance standards versus outcome goals.
“Outcome goals are the splits you or your coach sets or the final finishing time,” he says. “The performance standards aren’t outcomes, but how much effort you put into whatever that task is.”
Meaning, Bracy started out at UTMB with an outcome goal of a particular time, and mid-race, reframed her foals to a performance standard to do her absolute best.
“I think when it really boiled down to it, the goal of a race was to put yourself in a challenging situation and see how you can handle it,” she says. “I was still able to do my best that day – it wasn’t what I thought it was going to be, but it was still my best.”
But she wasn’t happy with her placement in the 100k CC.
But in early September, Bracy took on the 100k CCC and placed in what she thought was an uncharacteristic 116th with a time of 14:48:21.
“Failure Is the Currency to Our Dreams”
Foerster goes a step further and says that failure is not only okay, but it’s actually beneficial to experience.
“Anytime we can meet emotional discomfort where we have to deal with heavy emotions like disappointment, we teach ourselves how to navigate that more effectively,” Foerster says. “So that when we meet another uncomfortable moment in a race, we know we can meet it and process through it.”
In a study conducted by Ayelet Fishbach, Behavioral Science professor at University of Chicago, and Kaitlin Woolley, associate professor at the SC Johnson Cornell College of Business, it was proven that discomfort could lead to personal growth. By applying cognitive reappraisal, study participants assigned a new meaning to discomfort before they experienced it so it served as motivation rather than a reason to stop their goals. And, in the case of this study, participants who were forced into discomfort while doing a task reported a greater sense of achievement.
Much like running itself can be uncomfortable, forcing yourself to address the emotions that come with failure can be an unfamiliar, disagreeable experience. But doing so allows you to feel, process, and recognize that you can change your relationship with failure every time you meet it.
“Discomfort is the currency to our dreams,” Foerster says. “If we’re willing to meet it, all our potential is on the other side.”
So fail, and fail hard. Address the feeling head-on and don’t let it define you, but just one out of many more runs to come.