Off the Road: The Bad Race

by Russ Ebbets, DC

There are few people who wake-up race day morning and say – “I think I’ll have a bad race today.” But planned or unplanned, the longer one competes the greater the probability that a “bad race” and a t-shirt may be all one has to show for a race day’s effort.

For most, the immediate reaction is to chastise oneself and question one’s will or lack thereof. Once the emotions calm down, this is soon followed by an effort to figure out what went wrong. Knee jerk reactions (usually unproductive) may lean towards excuses from the either/or dichotomy. I trained too much or I didn’t train enough. It was too hot or it was too cold. I went out too fast or I didn’t go out fast enough. And then there is the universal catch-all, “My ___ hurt,” (you fill in the blank).

When I was a freshman in college, I used to sit at the dinner table and look around at the guys sitting there. It may be tough to imagine, but some of the guys on the team had hardly ever lost a race in their lives before coming to Villanova.

I distinctly remember one guy telling me he had run over 200 races as a high schooler and only lost five times. He was upset that he was a struggling 5th man on the cross country team and by default losing every race now, so every race for him was a “bad race.”

When you think about it, a bad race is about perspective, which is driven by one’s expectations. There needs to be some balance between the two for one to shrug off a loss or an effort that did not meet expectations and then to regroup and try to do it again.

Bad races are usually the result of a problem with preparation, planning or execution. Poor planning can affect anyone from the novice to the elite. While the elite may momentarily stumble, mistakenly thinking that it should be getting easier, the novice may stumble with the thought – there should be a plan?

Preparation is an easy one to violate with either too much or too little. You can start to bring in some psychological issues here with a little bit of compulsion, stubbornness or obstinance going a long way. On one hand compulsion, stubbornness or obstinance can cause one to overprepare or over train and produce an illness, injury or an effort that is pancake flat. But the lack of preparation due to compulsion, stubbornness or obstinance can lead to a rude awakening that success and excellence are not at the beck and call of either past laurels or a misplaced sense of entitlement.

Execution is where one puts all the planning and preparation into action. Competition is really the benchmark to see if what we are doing or how we are preparing is working. On a more esoteric level, execution is really a struggle between faith and doubt.

One must remember that there is a dormant psychological component that surfaces following a bad race. Self-doubts and even fears can suddenly present with a nagging persistence that one must now address. This is where the importance of a “trusted other” from one’s personal network (coach, spouse, parent, teacher, teammate, etc.) whose counsel can help bolster a shaky emotional state.

Physically one should initially consider easier, recovery type workouts whose mastery can begin, once again, to build-up self-esteem and confidence, and an “I can do this” attitude. While the opportunity to dwell on an apparent failure is there, a more productive strategy would be to evaluate the poor effort for lessons learned and resolve not to make the same mistake again. In a 10-12 year career, one does not have time to keep making the same mistakes again and again.

In spite of all our planning, preparation and execution sometimes things do go wrong. It can happen to anyone and it is probably a safe statement to say that it happens to everyone at some time. While the immediate opportunity is there to beat yourself up, a more productive strategy may be to give it a day or two and then objectively as possible dissect what or how things went awry.

Just as success leaves clues, so does a bad race. Tracing backwards from the execution point, one can review to see how preparation or planning could have forecasted the error. Experience tells me that review of one’s training (too much or too little), selection of workouts (reliance solely on one type of work) or lack of adequate rest are almost always major players in a bad race. Poor decisions regarding lifestyle choices of alcohol, food or hydration may also come into play.

And then the process repeats itself. If you are in the middle of a 3-month or 6-month training cycle, one would expect to tweak the training load in the coming month. If an injury is a contributing factor, better to get that fully resolved before resuming any heavy training.

Failure creates the necessity for thought. Although failure may be a strong descriptor for a bad race, I think the sentiment is clear. Setbacks offer the opportunity for inspection and introspection where one can examine all the moving parts that went into a race effort and one can come to conclusions as to how to rectify a disappointing outcome. Like it or not, a bad race gives re-direction. A bad race gives re-direction before you sit down, put on your fast shoes and toe the start line again.

Off the Road Archive

Off The Road: The Code of Tactical Commands

Specialization in Sports

Racing Adversity

Race Starting

The Long Trail: Running and Hiking

Morton's Neuroma

The Bijou Mile ... Jog Down Memory Lane

Running Economy

Off the Road: Peaking

Athletic Prehab Exercises


Multi-Lateral Development and the 7 Primal Movements


When I Was a Child

Ebbets’ new book can be ordered on Amazon.  Click here

A Runner's Guide blends local flavor with a personal touch to address universal themes all runners and athletes face. Russ Ebbets draws on a lifetime of experiences detailed through selected essays from 30+ years of training columns in the Hudson Mohawk Road Runners Club's Pace Setter Magazine. Whether it be thoughts on training and competition, growth and development or health and history, Ebbets creates a rich mosaic of the sport that offers something for everyone, be they athlete, coach, spectator or parent.”

Russ Ebbets, DC is a USATF Level 3 Coach and lectures nationally on sport and health related topics. He serves as editor of Track Coach, the technical journal for USATF. He is author of the novel Supernova on the famed running program at Villanova University and the sequel Time and Chance. A Runner’s Guide, a collection of training tips and running related essays was published in November of 2019. He can be contacted at

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