Coach Jeff

Written by Coach Jeff


Planning after you finish a marathon: Good, bad, and mediocre

Most marathoners think the race is over once they cross the finish line. All the hard work and the mental nervousness will cease to exist as soon as they are wrapped in that mylar blanket.

Unfortunately, if you’re an experienced marathoner, you know this isn’t quite how things work out.

Whether you ran great, just so-so, or really had a bad race, within minutes after collecting yourself and coming to your senses, the post marathon blues begin to set in.

The post marathon blues are the thoughts and actions that, thanks to a race that requires an intensive training block and can’t be run every weekend, consume a runner’s mind for weeks after the race has finished. It’s like the build-up to the Christmas as a kid – plenty of hype and excitement and then it’s all over and you have to wait another year.

After a great race, all a runner wants to do is keep training to maintain their fitness and see how far they can push their limits.

Have a bad day and most runners will spend the next few hours searching the Internet for the soonest possible race they can extract their revenge.

Worst yet, have a mediocre race, especially if it’s the result of something out of a runner’s control, and a runner will dwell so long on the “what could have been” scenarios, their training will suffer for weeks.

With the post marathon blues striking almost every runner, no matter how they finished, how do you protect yourself from dwelling on the race and letting it negatively influence your training decisions?

After a bad race: Wanting to do another one too soon

Regrouping after a bad marathon race is the most difficult kind of post marathon blues to overcome. You’ve put in months of hard running, sacrificed the little things, like snack foods or going out, and you’re left sulking at the finish line with seemingly nothing to show for your efforts.

Worse yet, unlike a 5k or a 10k, you can’t just bounce back and take another shot next weekend. Your muscles are damaged and you need to give them the proper time to recover or you risk overtraining and injury in the long-term. Many runners mistakenly try to jump right back into another race as quickly as they can, but more often than not, this only leads to a viscous cycle of compromised training and poor race results.

What can you do after a bad race

Think long-term

A bad marathon doesn’t mean you didn’t make any progress. It’s important to remember that training is never wasted and doesn’t exist in a vacuum for that one goal race.

Each successful training segment builds upon itself. You train to achieve a new level of fitness and once you’re able to reach this goal, you can build off that previous training and continue to reach higher summits in your subsequent workouts. Each month you can train is like putting money in the bank. The fitness will stay with you and allow you to build and even bigger base of training for the next race.

One bad race merely means that you didn’t have the chance to exhibit your newfound fitness. It doesn’t mean you’re not a better runner now than before you started your training segment.

Build confidence back by running a shorter distance race

If you can learn to appreciate that you’re still making progress long-term despite the fact that your goal race didn’t go as planned, you can schedule a shorter race 4-6 weeks away from your marathon to prove to yourself it was just one bad race.

While it isn’t instantaneous relief, turning your attention to a shorter race still allows you to take the necessary rest time after a marathon, yet enables you to display the fitness you gained with all your hard running. It’s the short-term confidence booster without sacrificing long-term goals.

Focus on the process, not the result

Finally, remind yourself of the age-old lesson: “Focus on the process, not the result”. While it’s always preferable to finish off a marathon training segment with a new PR, the real joy in running should come from the fun you had in training and the new mental and physical heights you achieved. Whether it be a great long run conversation you had with a running buddy or conquering that workout you never thought possible, these are the accomplishments you should remember.

After a good race: Not wanting to rest

On the opposite end of the post marathon blues spectrum, many runners confront the more veiled issue of wanting to parlay the rush and excitement of a new PR and newfound fitness into bigger personal bests. Worrying about what to do after a great race might seem like a trivial matter, but that’s exactly why it often causes the most grief for runners.

Unfortunately, it’s the mistake of not resting enough after a big race or a long training segment that ultimately leads to plateaus in training and stagnant race results. Not only does resting for 7-10 days have little negative impact on your current fitness, the long-term gains you will be able to make will enable you to continue to make consistent progress, year after year, without overtraining.

What you can do after a good race

Remember, you need the rest

As you’ve read on this blog before, the body undergoes a tremendous amount of physical stress after a marathon. Skeletal muscle, muscle cells, and the immune system are all severely compromised. Your body needs an extended period of rest to fully recover from and absorb the months of training you’ve put in. Failing to take the necessary downtime to fully recover will virtually ensure you plateau in your training.

7-10 rest days won’t affect your fitness
Recent studies show that there is little reduction in VO2max (1-3%) in the first 6-7 days following inactivity in well-trained runners. Furthermore, even after two weeks of not running, studies show that VO2 max decreases by only 6%. You’re takeaway, a little rest now will not ruin your fitness, but it will enable you to train consistently.

Walk away when you’re ahead

Finally, listen to your friends at gamblers anonymous – walk away when you’re ahead. Trying to prolong a productive training segment or a good string of races will always end badly, just like it does for gamblers who stay at the table after winning it big. It’s not easy to walk away when you’re ahead, but it always pays off in the long run.

After a mediocre race: Dwelling on the what could have been

Often, the most difficult type of marathon race to bounce back from are the unremarkable or mediocre finishes.

While you didn’t run bad, so you can’t be that upset, you also didn’t run as well as expected, so you can’t be happy.

The perplexity is only made worse if the possible reason for the average race wasn’t within your control – bathroom break, crowds or blisters.

Dwelling on a mediocre race is not only frustrating, it can be counter-productive and distracting. Like the feelings after a bad race, you want to hit the roads again to enact revenge and prove your fitness. Plus, you’re aware that you’re in good shape, so you’re tempted to return to hard training even faster. However, just like after a good race, you still need to take the time to recover if you want to make continues gains year after year.

What you can do after a mediocre race

The most important thing you can do after a frustrating race is conduct a post mortem.

Start by making a list of all the possible factors that lead to your disappointing race. For the time being, it doesn’t matter if these factors were within your control or not – if you think it may have affected your performance, write it down.

Next, write as many possible solutions or tactics you can implement in your training to prevent these possible hindrances from happening again. For example, if it was hot, you can try training with more layers or if you had bathroom problems you might want to experiment with a different nutrition strategy in training.

When you’re finished, you’ll have an extensive list of training tips you can implement during your next training segment and marathon race. You may notice that you have a few factors that you couldn’t find ways to improve. These are the factors you can’t control (rolled an ankle or the crowds were too large) and sometimes these are just bad luck.

The important thing with this task is you’ve taken your mind off the unknown and turned your focus to actionable tips you can implement for next time. Keep this list with you and make sure you look it over before starting your next training cycle. You’ll eliminate the same mistakes and increase your chances of having a great race.


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8 Responses on “Planning after you finish a marathon: Good, bad, and mediocre

  1. Thanks for the article Jeff. I can relate to most of what you said. We talked after missing my goal of breaking 3 at CIM about how to move forward. The thing I like to do is have the next marathon scheduled before I run the one I’m training for. That way as soon as the race is over I’ve got a race to look forward to. As with Boston we had to decide how aggressively to train. My condition both physically and mentally moving forward. Something that’s helped me is to enjoy the process of training for a marathon. You train 100 days to race 1 day, you’d better enjoy the 100. As with my training for Boston the past few weeks, I tried to build on and reflect on my training for CIM. What can I do better. If a goal is important to me, it’s not about regret but what’s it going to take to get it next time. And by the way, that’s exactly what’s going to happen April 16.

    • Thank, Dannis! I am glad the article hit home and I think you’re exactly right in your approach. It’s good to have that next race planned, as long as it’s far enough out, which Chicago is. Then, you can assess how you’re feeling and how quickly you recover and make the best training decisions.

      I am glad you’re reflecting on CIM, fixing any weaknesses, and enjoying the experience. You’re right – if you train 100 days for 1 goal race, you better enjoy those 100 days!

  2. There you go again being all wise 🙂 There is so much wisdom in this article. Thank you for writing it!! I can look back to recovering from my Houston marathon and see so many things you pointed out in this article. Additionally, I can look back on my most succesful training cycle and workouts with so much pride and in the end those weigh heavier in my heart than the actually marathon. I learned so many lessons that I will apply after my next marathon. Meanwhile enjoying every step I take!!!

  3. I must admit that I got the idea for this article after your Houston race, Jamie. While you’re definitely not the only one that struggles with what to do after such a big race, I found your ups and downs following the race to be a great example of why we all need some direction. I am glad you’re back on track and enjoying the higher mileage now 🙂

  4. Great article! I totally relate to it. Just ran my first marathon last Sunday, 10/06 in Hampton, NH, and in 2 weeks I’ll be running a half marathon, so I’m not sure how to handle the recovery time and if I should include some light running the week before the race. Any advice? FIY, I’ve run 4 half marathons just under 2 hours, and my goal was to do the marathon under 4, or even 4:10 would have been great, but instead I did it in 4:29:55. Needless to say I’m not too happy about it, but your article made me see the progress I’ve made. I had run the distance in my training in better time, 4:17:25. I think rainny weather conditions, negative thoughts, stiffness and pains all played a part on this bit disappointing performance. 🙁
    I really want to become a better and healthier runner will definetely get your strengh training for runners. 🙂

  5. I really needed to read this. I ran my first marathon this fall and was devastated to have barely squeezed out under 5:30. Much went wrong, many lessons were learned, but I can finally feel proud when I read your words “one bad race means you didn’t get the chance to exhibit your newfound fitness”. I’m already looking at April!

    • Thank you M. Glad this was helpful for you. It is best to learn those hard lessons in your first marathon as you can move forward from there, and improve next time. Those challenges make you appreciate when it all goes right. You definitely should feel proud, and your results will show your hard work, just be patient, and keep on believing in yourself. April will be a great opportunity for you to shine 🙂

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