Collapsed in a heap at an aid station, the event doctor drew a blood sample from my left arm for screening. It dawned on me that for the second time I was going to have a DNF against my name at the Buffalo Stampede Ultra Marathon. Yet, despite this mishap, a mere five weeks later I clinched second place from Yun Yanqiao in a dash up the 1,000 stairs in the final kilometre of the Ultra-Trail Australia 100km. The obvious question everyone was asking me afterwards was, “How did I turn things around?”
The truth is, ‘bad’ runs happen. That’s just how life works. Because without the lows, we have no way of recognising the highs. And probably the worst thing we can do after a bad run—be it a training run or race—is to ruminate, allowing the lacklustre performance bog us down. Of course, it may be useful to have a think about why the run didn’t go as planned; it pays to learn from our mistakes. But once we’ve extracted what we can from the experience, it’s time to move on.
It’s difficult to say how we might address a bad run without first defining what makes a run ‘bad.’ (After all, the very fact that you’re reading a magazine about trail running already indicates that you’re the type of person who considers running a ‘good’ thing!) Personally, I consider a bad run one where my performance is unexpectedly well below my current capabilities. I might still enjoy the run, but might find that it was slower or felt much more difficult than usual. A common reaction after a suboptimal run is to doubt our fitness and then resolve to work harder. In some cases, this is exactly what’s needed! However, in many cases this will only make matters worse.
Don’t stress out if, following a hard training session, you find that some of your easy runs are a bit slower than usual—remember, these runs are meant to be easy! The slight drop in pace could just be a sign that you dug extra deep the day before. However, when the intended hard days aren’t up to scratch, it’s time to take a closer look at your regimen.
For one, have you been getting adequate recovery between sessions? Running is our passion, but it’s not a pass to forego other aspects of life, such as work, family, friends, diet, sleep, etc. If you’ve had a particularly busy week at work, have been getting less sleep than usual, or have not been eating so well, then you should adjust your training load accordingly. The golden equation for maximum performance is: Stress plus recovery equals growth. That said, our ability to recover from the collective stresses of our lives is finite.
We might also class a training run as underwhelming because a niggle popped up. Depending on the nature of the injury, proper recovery may require you to take some time off running, or at least a temporary reduction in volume and intensity while you recover and rebuild your strength.
Weather can also have a major influence on our performance. In hot and humid conditions, we are going to run slower at a given intensity than we would in cool, dry conditions. Indeed, it’s tough when summer rolls around and suddenly we’re covering the same routes as we were during wintertime at much slower times. Where, you wonder, did all our fitness go?! Don’t panic, it’s still there—only hidden under the thick, warm, wet blanket that envelops you the moment you step outside. We simply need to put our ego aside and accept that we will run slower on a hot day.
That same ego might need to be set aside when we’re returning from a training break. I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes I have a hard time turning off that part of my brain, wanting to compare my most-current performance with my previous training efforts. So, to avoid the temptation, I’ll turn off the GPS on my watch and run on some new routes. This allows me to focus purely on running by feel, without the urge to watch the clock.
Race expectations similarly need to be adjusted to reflect the existing weather and terrain conditions, but theoretically, we should be well tapered so that residual fatigue is less of an issue. Overdoing things in the final week or two can explain poor race-day performance, although there are other factors that might also lead to an undesirable race.
Perhaps we simply went out too hard and then paid the price later. Proper pacing takes practice to learn, and if we are looking to truly test our limits we unfortunately will sometimes cross the thin line that separates reality from our ambitions.
Nutrition is also key in our performance. Fading energy levels in the latter stages of a hard or long run may indicate that we just need to eat more to fuel our effort. However, a steady decline in race performances over time (despite similar training levels to what you’ve sustained before) may mean that we simply need to recover more between events (especially if you’ve been racing frequently in the preceding weeks or months).
Of course, if your training in the lead up to a race has been haphazard, then yes, a poorer-than-hoped performance is probably a wake-up call to train harder. Another harsh reality is that sometimes our races aren’t up to our ‘expected’ standard because our expectations are, well, unrealistic. We need to be honest with ourselves about what we can and cannot expect from our training, focusing our race goals on the process of a good run rather than on the final finishing time and place.
You might still be wondering what changed for me between the Buffalo Stampede and Ultra-Trail Australia: I reassessed my nutrition and hydration strategy, realising that over-hydration was the likely cause of my collapse. I also changed my mindset. A poor run can add fuel to the fire and drive you to blindly push yourself harder—I simply made sure I used that desire intelligently. In the following weeks, rather than burying myself in training, I allowed myself proper recovery. I then applied the lessons learnt to my fuelling plan and held on to the increased determination, before unleashing it on race day. A bad run never makes you a bad runner—it’s just an opportunity to do things better.
Article by Ben Druffus.
Ben is an elite ultra marathon runner with podium finishes all around the globe. If you want help pursuing your trail-running goals, he also offers online coaching at Mile27.com.au.