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Nothing stings worse than putting in weeks and even months of hard training—the early morning track sessions, the weekend long runs—and making it to the starting line of your goal race, only to have it all end in a DNF (did not finish).
Whether the result of extreme weather conditions, illness, injury, lack of preparation, or simply bad luck, not finishing can crush even the most seasoned runner’s confidence.
“When you care about something as deeply as runners care about a big race that they prepared for for months on end and thought about even for years, to not finish can be a traumatic experience,” says Ben Rosario, coach and executive director of Northern Arizona Elite.
“There are so many emotions involved—guilt, embarrassment, and even shame—and to expect an athlete at any level to get over that right away is short-sighted,” he says.
From identifying why you didn’t finish to making time for proper recovery to mixing up your training and ensuring you’re in top mental and physical shape for the next big race, Rosario and other runners and coaches share their tips for bouncing back from a DNF.
Recovering From a DNF
Focusing on these concrete steps can help you get over the mental hurdle of a DNF.
Identify the root cause(s).
Once you’ve DNF’ed, Rosario recommends pausing and assessing why you didn’t finish before jumping straight back into training or racing.
If it was an injury or unexpected illness, get evaluated by a medical professional and seek appropriate medical treatment, whether that’s receiving IV fluids to manage dehydration or committing to physical therapy to address form weaknesses.
And don’t discount the impact of the weather on your ability to finish a race, says Rosario, as was the case with his NAZ Elite athlete Kellyn Taylor, who developed hypothermia and dropped out of the notoriously cold and rainy Boston Marathon in 2018.
For online running coach and former professional runner Esther Atkins, racing in extreme heat and humidity at the Baltimore Marathon in 2009 after a transatlantic flight and little sleep caused severe dehydration that forced her to leave the course.
“Sometimes, your body just shuts down and you have no choice but to quit, so you really can’t beat yourself up about that,” she says.
Regardless of the cause, Rock Hill, South Carolina, runner and teacher Amanda Ghent says not finishing is often the best decision you can make at that moment. Of her DNF earlier this year due to a nagging hamstring injury, she notes, “I’ve built more confidence in knowing that I was wise enough to listen to my body and to stop before something worse happened.”
Take time to recover.
Even if you don’t finish a goal distance race like a half or full marathon, it still takes a toll on your body, mentally and physically. Rosario says it’s imperative to take time off and let your body recover before resuming training or signing up for that next race.
“There are too many emotions in the hours after a DNF, so you really need to give yourself time to decompress,” he says. “I recommend giving yourself 48 hours to process so you can make any decisions about racing with a clear head.”
For Taylor, a post-Boston vacation with her family allowed her to rest and regroup before determining her next race—Grandma’s Marathon—which she won, less than 60 days after her Boston DNF.
“We were able to take advantage of her Boston training and fitness because she took some down time and came back stronger and fresher,” says Rosario.
And even if you don’t have time to take a formal vacation, the body can still reap the benefits of a reset. After her DNF, Ghent doubled down on recovery techniques like massages, compression boots, and alternating ice dips with Epsom salt baths and allowed time for her body to heal before resuming running.
Mix it up.
When you do get back into training, Rosario says most runners will benefit from mixing up their routine, whether that’s a reduction in volume, training for a new distance, or adding in weightlifting and other cross-training.
“If you dropped out of a marathon, switching gears and preparing for a 5K, 10K, half, or even trail race can be a great way to shift your mindset and get away from the negative feelings that remain from the DNF,” he says.
When Atlanta health policy analyst Whitney Griggs dropped out of the Newport Marathon in 2016, she did exactly that, reducing her weekly mileage to just 15–20 miles per week and focusing on shorter distances, like 10Ks. She also added in Pilates and strength training, which were easier to fit into her schedule than long early morning runs, and believes mixing up her routine boosted her confidence and got her excited about running again.
Similarly, after three DNFs in a span of three years, Atlanta public health director Michelle Panneton decided to focus on short, local races to regain her confidence and fall back in love with the sport.
“I needed to remember I wasn’t a pro runner and that I do this for fun,” she says. She also started working with a coach who put together a flexible training schedule that accommodated her stressful job with international travel, “which allowed me to find a balance that would allow me to keep progressing as a runner, but stay healthy and have fun,” she continues.
Following her DNF, Ghent upped her strength training routine and shifted her cardio training to the ElliptiGO and trails, which were easier on her body.
If and when you decide to train for another marathon, Rosario recommends choosing a race that differs dramatically from the one you didn’t finish. For Taylor, it was a smaller race in a new location with fewer hills and less media attention than Boston, a World Marathon Major.
He also suggests avoiding specific workouts you did leading up to the DNF and backing off the mileage, especially if you’re racing another marathon in a short time frame. “Don’t try to replace what you lost or replicate old workouts, but find a different challenge you can get excited about,” he says.
Focus on mental and physical preparation.
Whether it’s a neighborhood 5K or a dream destination marathon, Atkins recommends doubling down on mental and physical preparation for your next race based on what didn’t work in the last one.
“Maybe the hills really tore up your quads in Boston, so add more squats and hill repeats to your training cycle to help you feel more confident for your next hilly race,” she says. If you dropped out due to dehydration, practice hydrating properly during long training runs, and track your fluid intake the 48 hours before a goal race.
For Panneton, attending weekly group track workouts gave her a sense of camaraderie while also helping her execute paces and workouts she often bailed on when running solo.
And when preparing your body physically with the right mix of fuel, hydration, and distance-specific workouts, don’t neglect your mind, says Eugene, Oregon–based mental preparation coach Dr. Kay Porter, who has worked with the University of Oregon Athletic Department and USA Track and Field.
She recommends practicing pre-race visualization, envisioning yourself running strongly and smoothly in the last few miles. She also says that having a mantra—something as simple as “I trained hard for this” or “I am strong and powerful”—can help ground and motivate you during tough training runs and races.
Mid-race, she recommends periodic body scans to focus on form and breathing. “Literally go from the top of your head to your toes, making sure your jaw is relaxed, your shoulders are down, and your stride is long, as we tend to clench muscles and shorten our stride when we get tired,” she says.
This strategy can also help keep you from going out too fast or running a pace you can’t sustain, says Panneton, who DNFed a marathon when a boyfriend paced her based on a time goal that was unrealistic for the conditions that day.
“I realized I wasn’t tuning into what my body was telling me, and now I focus on running negative splits and continue to not only finish races, but PR in many distances,” she says.
And if the pressure of a PR is too intense, Atkins recommends setting a goal not tied to time. “Maybe that’s executing your food and hydration plan, starting more conservatively, or making finishing the race your ultimate goal,” she says. “You want to set yourself up for success so you don’t DNF the next time around.”
She used this approach when coaching a middle school cross-country runner who was defeated after dropping out of her first meet.
“We focused on her pacing, on making sure she slowed down, and while she finished pretty close to the back of the pack, she had the biggest smile on her face because she accomplished her goal,” she says.
Reminding yourself of why you run can also help shift your perspective and build confidence for the next race.
As Ghent says, “I remind myself this isn’t my job, and my worth and security don’t lie in simply finishing a race, or even running it faster than the last one.”