How to Modify Your Goal When Things Go Wrong

At my most recent marathon, the Revel Wasatch, I had to modify my goal mid-race. I often talk about “doing hard things”, pushing yourself, and getting comfortable being uncomfortable. All of these are necessary elements in long distance running.

But we don’t often talk about is how continuing to push yourself can sometimes work against you whether in training or during a race. It’s important to stay strong but also be mentally flexible. There is a point when pulling the plug on your race goal is the hard thing to do but also a necessary choice.

How to Modify Your Goal When Things Go Wrong

Now I’m not talking about deciding to change your goal solely based on mild discomfort or your mind telling you to quit. Our brains are invested in protecting our bodies (because having a functioning body is the only way our brains can get around). In your long distance running journey you will be faced with multiple instances when your mind will tell you that you should quit or back off from pushing yourself. You will be faced with multiple aches, pains, discomfort, niggles, GI distress and more. So it can be challenging to figure out when you should keep pushing forward and when you should either slow your pace or even drop out (DNF).

There are no clear cut rules here. Everyone has that breaking point and the key is to get the most out of yourself without causing lasting damage. So, let’s talk about some indications that you should definitely DNS (did not start) or DNF (did not finish) your race (or long run).

Physical Warning Signs:

  • Fever: This is your body telling you that the immune system is already stressed and trying to fight off illness. Continuing to push your body through a fever is only going to stress your immune system more and probably prolong and/or worsen the illness.
  • Chest pain: Any cardiac related issues or chest pain should not be ignored. If you are experiencing a feeling of abnormal indigestion, a tightness or heaviness in your chest, or pain or numbness radiating down one arm these can also be warning signs. Get help immediately and proceed to the nearest hospital.
  • Difficulty breathing: If you’re dealing with persistent shortness of breath or difficulty breathing this can be a sign of a cardiac emergency or even an asthma attack. This is also a situation to seek help medical help immediately.
  • Dizziness: If your vision becomes blurred, you notice the horizon narrowing drastically, or you experience abnormal dizziness or confusion stop running and seek medical attention. Your risk of falling is greatly increased and this can be a sign of interrupted blood flow.
  • Severe GI distress (vomiting/diarrhea): This is an area where people have different comfort levels. But if you’re unable to keep food or fluids down, have severe abdominal pain or bloating, or have vomited or had diarrhea multiple times it’s a sign that your body is already stressed and needs to rest and hydrate. Continuing to push yourself can result in dehydration and low blood sugar at the very least.
  • Sharp pain that changes your running form or sudden abnormal weakness. Pain that results in changed running form is an indication of injury. Continuing to run through it may result in further injury or even new injury as the body has to compensate for the issue. It’s wise to experiment with changing your pace (running more slowly or walking) for a period of time or even stopping to briefly stretch to see if that resolves the problem. If the pain continues or gets worse it’s wise to stop.

There is no shame in deciding to live to run another day. In fact, amongst professional runners it’s common for them to drop out if things are going badly so that they can save themselves for another race. While I believe in the concept of not giving up, that’s not the same thing as making the smart decision to quit. Our culture glorifies the idea of prevailing through incredible odds and stories like that are incredibly inspiring. But it’s not a sign of weak character, laziness, or lack of strength if you decide to pull the plug on a long run or race. In fact, it may be a sign of maturity. It could be a sign that your ego is not so wrapped up in any one race that you can’t keep the big picture in mind.

I’ve been very fortunate through the years that I’ve never had to DNF a race. A few years ago I was dealing with hormonal imbalances that resulted in very low energy levels and I decided to DNS a race. And there have been many times when I’ve modified my race goal so that I could safely finish. Sometimes this was due to a potential injury and other times due to the heat. I think the biggest challenge to overcome is actually making the mental shift to accept the reality of the situation and not being overly attached to your goal.

We heard from a MTA listener named James recently who said,

“So never thought I’d have a race impacted by ants, but there is always a first. 32km race today and my second ever DNF. Working in the yard yesterday and had my knee in the dirt and it appears I had disturbed an ants nest. After about 20 painful bites I woke up in the morning with a swollen knee and lower leg. Thought I’d see how I got but at 20km with a lap to go, my knee was throbbing and opposite calf started hurting, I’m assuming from running differently to make up for the swollen knee. So I thought better to call it and not risk any additional damage. Hopefully the swelling is down soon so I can get back to the last 4 weeks of my marathon training.”

Developing Mental Flexibility

Mental flexibility allows you to make the mental shift between wanting to meet your goal and dealing with the reality of the situation. It allows you to separate from your ego and look at the bigger picture. Here are some ways to be mentally flexible in the moment:

  • Go into a race with multi-layered goals. For example your A goal may be to PR, your B goal may be to hit another less rigorous time goal, and your C goal may be to finish strong and healthy. This is not an excuse to give less than your best. It’s simply an acknowledgement that every race isn’t going to be amazing.
  • The mental struggle may be intense. Ask yourself what advice you’d give a close friend in this situation. We’re often kinder (and wiser) when dealing with other people. Show yourself the same love and care that you’d offer to your best friend.
  • Acknowledge your disappointment and any other emotions you’re having. There is no right or wrong way to feel when things are going wrong. You may feel embarrassed, like a failure, like you’re letting yourself and others down, like you’ll never reach the goal you’ve set, like your body is betraying you, or even relief. Allowing yourself to go through the stages of grief helps you come out the other side mentally and emotionally stronger.
  • Make the decision with your long term goals in mind. For example, my main running goal is to be a strong and healthy runner for life. No one race is so important that it’s worth injuring your health or compromising your safety.
  • Don’t let any one race define you. I know it can be agonizing when you’ve trained hard for months to accomplish something and it slips out of your reach. Goals are important but you are more than your goals. You are more than your identity as a runner. If you make the right decision there will be other races and other moments to shine.
  • Look for ways to be grateful and stay in the moment. So much of our suffering is caused by holding on to the past or an imagined future. It takes strength to love what is. Even in the midst of disappointment there is still good all around us. If we stay in the moment and look for things to be thankful for it helps ease the sadness. And we’re more likely to learn and grow from the experience as well.
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