Dealing with a DNF or DNS
Aside from the obvious glitches such as injury or illness, the decision to DNS or DNF 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, lack of fitness, underestimating the conditions, dehydration, or you are just not feeling right on the day, what’s crucial is to make a clinical and calculated decision; you do this through self-awareness and by being honest with yourself leading up to and/or on the day of your race.
To improve self-awareness take time to reflect on your experiences, thoughts and feelings. Also, be mindful and task-focussed rather than worrying about the past or future. This ‘inward’ approach helps you stay honest, and to focus on making the best decision for you, rather than spending valuable energy worrying about what others think (more on that later).
Athletes are often self-critical and can fail to move on because they get stuck mulling over whether it was right to DNS or DNF. This often stems from 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?). An important part of the process also involves learning from what happened - this allows you to take the next step towards your goal and to keep progressing - see tips below on taking control post-DNF.
The coach of Olympic Kenyan runners told me one of their athletes’ 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. Closer to home, of all the athletes I work with, overanalysing a bad performance is common. This unhelpful habit can be distracting and draining mentally and emotionally, and even physically, for such athletes. Earlier I mentioned having a support network; indeed it is helpful 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 supports your values and your goals - and who inspires you. Someone you respect and whose opinion and guidance, you trust.
To avoid a DNS or 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 to 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.
If-then strategies - 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 (and sometimes they do!). To avoid agonising over whether to DNS, early on in your training schedule, create useful if-then strategies. 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.
To take control after a DNS/DNF:
Cognitive restructuring - Once 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 and simply 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 cringe worthy as it may sound) - genuinely confident athletes value and learn much more from failure than they do from success.
Checklist for deciding on a DNS or DNF:
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?
Case studies - What the experts say:
Samantha Lloyd, running/triathlon coach and runner, Kent, UK
“In a DNF situation you must be well enough to get to the start line, so something has happened whilst competing to make you stop. In my situation I then mulled this over in my head for a few days after wondering if there was anything else I could have done to keep going. Should I have just sorted the problem, run along slowly having to maybe stop occasionally and be happy to finish and not worry about my time? I’d made the decision that I had to stop and would not have been happy running on with a slower time. But I was still thinking about it for a few days after and was telling myself I should have carried on! With a DNS something quite serious must have happened to not even get to the start, so I think that is an easier decision to live with!”
Grant Pirie, triathlete coach and distance runner, East Sussex, UK
“A DNF can show admirable effort but a seal has been reached at which point either mentally or physically you cannot pass. You will almost certainly learn something at least a little valuable from a DNF. A DNS, however, shows one of two very different sides, it can show great maturity if injury is preventing you from attempting something you have planned/trained extensively for. On the other hand, to not even try starting an event you worked hard towards and intended to complete, is a sad situation to be in and can show great weakness.”