In my last marathon, Revel Wasatch, I had to adjust my goal mid-race. I often talk about “doing hard things,” pushing yourself, and being comfortable when you’re uncomfortable. All of these elements are essential in long-distance running.
But we don’t talk much about how you keep pushing yourself sometimes against you either in training or during the race. It is important to remain strong but also to be mentally flexible. There comes a point when pulling the plug on your race target is the hard thing to do but it’s also a necessary option.
Now I’m not talking about deciding to change your goal just based on mild discomfort or your brain telling you to quit. Our minds are invested in protecting our bodies (because having a functioning body is the only way our brains can navigate). On your long-distance running journey, you will encounter many situations where your brain tells you that you should quit pushing or undo your push yourself. You will experience many aches, pains, discomfort, distress, intestinal distress and more. So it can be hard to know when you should keep moving forward and when you should either slow down or even pull back (DNF).
There are no clear rules here. Everyone has this breaking point and the key is to get the most out of yourself without causing permanent damage. So, let’s talk about some pointers that you should definitely DNS (not start) or DNF (not end) your race (or long run).
Physical warning signs:
- Fever: This is your body telling you that your immune system is already stressed and trying to fight off disease. Continuing to push your body through a fever will only strain your immune system and possibly prolong and/or exacerbate the illness.
- Source: Any heart related problems or chest pain should not be ignored. If you experience a feeling of abnormal indigestion, tightness or heaviness in your chest, or pain or numbness spreading down one arm, these may also be warning signs. Get help immediately and head to the nearest hospital.
- breathing difficulties: If you are dealing with persistent shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, it could be a sign of a heart emergency or even an asthma attack. This is also a situation to seek medical help immediately.
- Dizziness: If your vision becomes blurred, you notice that your horizon is significantly narrowed, or you experience abnormal dizziness or confusion, stop running and seek medical attention. The risk of falling increases dramatically and this can be a sign of interrupted blood flow.
- Severe gastrointestinal distress (vomiting/diarrhea): This is an area where people have different levels of comfort. But if you are unable to keep down food or fluids, have severe abdominal pain or bloating, have vomited or had diarrhea several times, it is a sign that your body is already exhausted and needs rest and hydration. Continuing to push yourself could lead to dehydration and low blood sugar, to say the least.
- Sharp pain that changes the way you run or sudden abnormal weakness. Pain that leads to a change in running form is an indication of an injury. Continuing to run through it could lead to more injury or even a new one as the body has to compensate for the problem. It is wise to try changing your pace (running slowly or walking) for a while or even stopping to stretch for a while to see if that solves the problem. If the pain persists or gets worse, it is wise to stop.
There is nothing wrong with deciding to live another day. In fact, it is common for professional runners to drop out of school if all goes well so that they can save themselves for another race. Although I believe in the concept of not giving up, this is not the same thing as making the smart decision to quit smoking. Our culture glorifies the idea of sovereignty through incredible possibilities and stories like these that are incredibly inspiring. But it’s not a sign of weak character, laziness, or a lack of strength if you decide to pull the plug on a long distance or race. In fact, it may be a sign of maturity. It could be a sign that your ego isn’t so engrossed in any one race that you can’t keep the big picture in mind.
I have been very fortunate during the years that I have never had to race a DNF. A few years ago I was dealing with hormonal imbalances which resulted in extremely low energy levels and decided to do a DNS race. And there were a few times when I adjusted my race goal so I could finish safely. Sometimes this was due to potential injury and other times due to the heat. I think the biggest challenge to overcome is actually making a mental shift to accept the reality of the situation and not become overly attached to your goal.
We recently heard from an MTA listener named James who said,
“So I never thought I’d have an ant-affected race, but there’s always a first. The 32km race today and my second DNF race ever. I was working in the yard yesterday and I put my knee in the dirt and it looks like I disturbed the anthill. After about 20 painful bites, I woke up In the morning my knees are swollen and down my leg.I thought I would see how I arrived but at 20km with a lap, my knee was swaying and the opposite calf started to hurt, I suppose from running differently to make up for the swollen knee.So I thought it best to call it and not risk any damage Extra. I hope the swelling goes down soon so I can go back to the last four weeks of my marathon training.”
Develop mental flexibility
Mental flexibility allows you to make the mental shift between wanting to achieve your goal and dealing with the reality of the situation. It allows you to break away from your ego and look at the bigger picture. Here are some ways to be mentally flexible right now:
- Race with multi-level objectives. For example, your goal A might be PR, your goal B might be another less stringent time goal, and your goal C might be a strong, healthy finish. This is no excuse to give less than your best. It is simply an admission that not every race is going to be amazing.
- Mental conflict can be intense. Ask yourself what advice you would give a close friend in this situation. We are often kinder (and wiser) when dealing with other people. Show yourself the same love and care that you would give your best friend.
- admit your disappointment And any other feelings you have. There is no right or wrong way to feel when things go wrong. You may feel embarrassed, like a failure, like you’re letting yourself and others down, like you’ll never reach the goal you set, like your body is cheating on you, or even comfort you. Allowing yourself to go through the stages of grief helps you come out of the other side stronger mentally and emotionally.
- Make the decision with your long-term goals in mind. For example, my main goal in running is to be a strong, healthy runner for life. No single sweat is so important that it’s worth harming your health or compromising your safety.
- Don’t let any race define you. I know it can be painful when you’ve trained hard for months to get something done and it’s just 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.
- Find ways to be grateful and stay in the moment. Much of our suffering results from clinging to the past or an imagined future. To love what is requires strength. Even in the midst of disappointment, there is still something good around us. If we stay in the moment and look for things to be thankful for, it helps relieve sadness. We are more likely to learn and grow from the experience, too.