It can happen to anyone: you train for your race, you show up on race day, you tie your sneakers and . . . bonk. What is a bonk? Well, when it happens it generally pertains to when you run out of fuel and you most certainly know it: for instance, a spectator might have to attend to you on the side of the road, like happened to me last month at the Ottawa Marathon. You might have to walk. Or perhaps you radically finish much slower than your anticipated finishing time. “With running, you have to remember that anybody can have a bad day,” says Reid Coolsaet, two-time Olympian, run coach and resident iRun expert on all things pertaining to moving fast. Coolsaet, reached just days away from his 100-mile debut at the vaunted Western States ultra-marathon, adds, “You can’t measure yourself by the bad days, only the good days, because a good day can’t be a fluke, but a bad day that doesn’t show your fitness is hard to isolate. There are so many reasons why even a properly trained runner might bonk.”
So: let’s say it happens. Let’s say it was hot (or cold), windy (or humid), your shoes were too tight, you ran poorly paced, your iPod ran out of batteries or, the night before your big race, your girlfriend broke up with you. As Tom Petty might say, “it’s time to move on.” But how? We worked with Coolsaet, well, I did, following my Ottawa Debacle, for a primer on how to get back on my feet.
1. Sign up for your next race. Running without a goal, it’s been said, is jogging. “During the pandemic when I didn’t know what my next marathon would be, my workouts weren’t going that well and I couldn’t put a finger on why,” says Coolsaet, who ran through his list: he wasn’t injured, he was in good shape, but there was something missing: purpose. “When I finally found a marathon, my next workout was awesome. I hadn’t gained fitness in two days, the weather wasn’t better and I hadn’t tapered, but all of the sudden I had a race on my calendar and that gave me extra motivation and excitement.” This week, I picked my next marathon: Hamilton Marathon Road2Hope. If Reid can run another race, so can I.
2. Review your training plan. After you decide you’re not going to swap running to write poetry, take an honest look at what went wrong. Did you run out of endurance or speed? How was your pre-race lifestyle? Did you actually do what your coach assigned? For me, I had gotten into the habit of taking little halfway walk breaks on my long runs to enjoy gels and water. I also didn’t always do my reps on everything over 30K. I also drank 411 beers. Be honest with yourself. Did you train, or did you hope for a miracle on race day? Crossing your fingers and praying is a bad way to hit a PB.
3. STOP. FREAKING. RUNNING. “Mistakes I see people often make is they don’t take enough time off throughout the year,” says Coolsaet, and that’s actually a problem I don’t have. If you raced recently, and have been racing for years; or, if you’re new to the sport, got excited, trained, raced and under-performed—relax for a bit. The idea is to become a longtime runner, not cross something off your bucket list once. Coolsaet shared a quote he likes about runners running too much: “They’re not confident enough to take time off.” Trust yourself and trust the process. Remember, the more motivated you are, the more likely it is that you’re running too much.
4. Adjust your training. This is a tricky one. The definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over again, says Coolsaet, and expecting a different result. However, that’s exactly the definition of running: you run again and again and again. “Sometimes it’s about sticking it out and consistency and you might get a better result in two years,” says Coolsaet, but he also alerted me to the flip side: in two years from now, I’ll be 50. I’m not the same athlete I was at 35. “I got into a trap trying to replicate my training,” admits Coolsaet, who ran 180-kilometre weeks, then upped it to 200K weeks and kept upping his volume, while getting older and having a life as the miles take their toll. “It worked,” he says, “Until it didn’t.” An injured runner drinking beer is just someone drinking beer.
5. Get new kicks. This is a tough one. We all love running because all you need is a pair of shorts and some sneakers and away you go. However, in the age of the super shoe, despite their price tag, there’s no two ways around it: the new sneakers are sweet. “It’s not only how fast you run, but how much better you feel towards the end of your race,” Coolsaet says. Everyone has to make their own decisions regarding $300 sneakers. Personally, I just got the Endorphin Pro 3 from Saucony (the earlier iteration is pictured on their site), and my children are still my favourite things in the world. I’m just saying: these shoes don’t need any help getting to sleep.
6. Be kind to yourself. If Reid Coolsaet doesn’t define himself by his performances, neither should you. “I remember my first Olympics. I way under-performed, but people didn’t care. I finished twenty-seventh instead of seventeenth and I could’ve been thirty-seventh and people would say ‘Good job,’” says Reid. “You can define your athletic career by good performances, but not yourself or your worth. You never want to put too much stock in performance. It’s not who you are.”
I bonked in my marathon and lived to tell the story and I’ll be back again giving high-fives to kids. If you bonk, consider it a war stripe. It’s something, says Coolsaet, that will toughen you up for life, and your next race.