Knowing when to quit a race or cancel it before you reach the start line is tough, yet it’s a skill that reinforces your strengths as an athlete. It’s about level-headed risk management and is as much to do with your mind, as it is your body...
Aside from the obvious glitches such as major injury or illness, making the decision to DNS (did not start) or DNF (did not finish) comes down to having the right resources and support network, being self-aware and maintaining a healthy perspective.
Whether it’s due to an injury or niggle that flares up on the day, a lack of fitness, underestimating the conditions, dehydration (though hopefully that's not a problem for you as a PH athlete...), or you simply aren’t feeling ‘right’, the key point is to make a clinical and calculated decision - to be honest with yourself leading up to, or on the day of your race.
Rational decisions are driven by self-awareness, which you can develop by regularly reflecting on your experiences, thoughts and feelings and by being mindful (i.e. being task-focused and in 'the present', rather than worrying about the past or future).
This ‘inward’ approach helps you stay honest and to put focus on what’s right for you, rather than spending valuable energy on worrying about what others think (more on that later).
Get to grips with your motivation
Most athletes have clear goals for each race and a variety of drivers (motivations) for doing a particular race, from honouring a loved one, ticking off a training race, practicing a specific performance goal, having fun; to wanting to qualify for something or climb up the rankings.
As a result, expectations and perceived obligations can make the decision to DNS or DNF difficult, yet it’s important to control your own destiny. Self-perceived internal pressure is often turned into external pressure, athletes sometimes start to think more about what others think they should do in a race rather than what they themselves actually want to do. This only adds agony to the decision!
Perceived (and real) external pressure is common, often fuelled by social media, as we tell the world know what we're doing.
While voicing your goals and race plans can be motivating and keep you honest, it’s important be very clear about ‘why’ you're doing a race. Re-visit your ‘why’ regularly (mentally - and also write it down), especially if you're training this year for a race next year, so your outcome (i.e. your goal race) is some time away.
Identifying what characterises your motivation can help you keep a healthy perspective, can help you avoid inner conflict (a useful skill, when faced with having to decide whether to DNS or DNF) and can help reinforce your values (i.e. what’s important to you).
Having clear goals can also help mitigate conflict when it comes to deciding to DNS or DNF.
Athletes are often self-critical and can fail to move on because they get stuck on whether it was right to DNS or DNF, again, partly due to being worried about the implications.
What will others think? Has my coach lost confidence in me? What do the rest of the team think? Do my crew believe in me? Do I believe in me?
Making a rational decision at the time and accepting the decision, means you’ll feel satisfied with having made the right choice for you at the time.
A valuable next step is to learn from what happened and take the next step towards your goal (see tips on taking control post-DNF). In my experience of talking with top coaches of Kenyan runners, for example, I’m told one of their greatest strengths is their acceptance. They don’t let one race affect their whole season, will often say ‘today was not my day’, learn from it and move on.
Amongst almost all of the athletes I work with, over-analysing a bad performance is common. This unhelpful habit can be distracting and draining mentally and emotionally, and even physically, for such athletes.
Finally, it’s key to have the right support around you. If you don’t have a coach, find a mentor who understands you as a person, not just an athlete, and is clear about your values, your goals - and who inspires you. Someone you respect and whose opinion and guidance, you trust.
Race day success - avoiding a DNS/DNF
Go with your gut
In training, minimise gastrointestinal upsets by experimenting with what you can and can’t digest and drink - especially for endurance events.
Practise fuelling and hydrating in different weather conditions, times of the day (if your race involves night running or is multi-stage) and at various distances. Be precise with your fuelling practice in training, so that it’s compatible with race day - in other words, if you are training for a 50-mile event, practice fuelling in your longest training run - not on your shorter runs. If doing a long distance triathlon, practice on the bike and run, if you know you’ll need fuel during both disciplines.
Much of the anxiety around deciding whether to DNS or DNF comes down to ‘unfamiliar territory’, i.e. not having cognitive strategies in place for if things go wrong (which sometimes, inevitably, they do!).
To avoid agonising over whether to DNS, create useful if-then strategies early on in your training schedule. For example, ‘If I get sick and fall behind a week, then I’ll a) talk it through with my coach b) make sure I build back up slowly and acknowledge my training so far c) focus more on my nutrition and building my immunity’.
If-then strategies for race day could include: ‘If it’s hotter than expected, then I’ll a) re-assess my goals b) slow my pace slightly c) adjust my hydration strategy’.
Creating ‘if-then’ strategies helps you prepare cognitively - this encourages rational decision making and minimises anxiety when called for (during races or in training).
Seeing is believing
Visualisation can be an effective preparation tool for avoiding a DNF. Run through the event in your mind in training. See yourself in the race at different stages and experiencing different situations, both positive and negative (see yourself smiling, hearing people cheer as you pass, see yourself dropping your drink bottle, or feeling fatigued).
The more you can replicate race scenarios and experiences in your mind before the event, the calmer you’ll feel on the day - you’ll also feel confident that you can cope with whatever comes your way.
If considering a DNS or DNF, ask yourself:
- Am I doing this race because I want to?
- Do I really think I can do the race?
- Is my injury race limiting, or is it race-ending?
- Can I run through the niggle in training?
- Is my confidence where it should be?
- Can I change my target of a PB to simply finishing/enjoying the event?
- Can I change my race strategy and run with a friend rather than race?
Tips on taking control post-DNF
Once you're through the initial disappointment, move on and avoid focusing on a single outcome (bad race). Think constructively and move the goal posts.
Ask yourself ‘what have I achieved along the way?’ For example, a 100-miler DNF could mean you have achieved a good marathon, then 30-miler, then 50-miler - okay, so you haven’t achieved a 100-miler the first time, but you have achieved a lot along the way. Focus on what’s been achieved, not on what’s missing.
Smell the roses
Celebrate every achievement so you build a healthy perspective and continue to nurture your motivation. Many athletes will casually skim over a good performance or race, yet if they have a bad race, look out - it can be referred to for the rest of your life! I know I’ve been guilty of this!
Re-build your confidence
If you’re hit hard by a DNS or DNF, get back into basic training and re-start the journey. Start from scratch and enter a few shorter races, building up to your goal race.
Athletes with a growth mindset ask: What am I going to do the make sure this doesn’t happen again? And I’m going to say it - as cringeworthy as it may sound - confident athletes learn much more from failure than they do from success.
Evie Serventi is a Sport and Exercise Psychologist (BPS Stage 2), triathlete and editor. When she’s not by a river coaching triathletes, or trackside with runners/cyclists, you’ll find her talking to whoever is willing to listen about how she can help athletes rehabilitate successfully and return to their sport (her latest research project!).
She’s all about helping athletes develop the skills and attitude to reach the top of their game, and to help ensure they stay at the top when they get there. And they do. You can get in touch with Evie at firstname.lastname@example.org