In Defense of Dirty, Rotten, No-Good Marathons (or, how to learn from bad marathons)

The marathon is a fickle beast: at 26.2 miles, the potential for back luck is huge. After 20 miles you’re in the Wild West and anything can happen.

That uncharted territory can bring disastrous consequences, reducing your goal marathon pace to a shuffle or leading to a few too many bathroom stops.

I experienced this first hand at the Boston Marathon in 2014. Murphy’s Law hung over me like a rain cloud, cursing me with every imaginable marathon mishap:

  • I started way too fast (my second mile was 5:41 – oops)
  • There was no opportunity to warm up properly
  • The temperature was too hot for ideal marathon racing
  • GI problems necessitated two bathroom stops
  • The aggressive downhills caused my old IT band injury to resurface

When it rains, it pours.

But that’s the beauty of the marathon. The element of the unknown is seductive, making us come back again and again (and again… and again…) to a race that repeatedly beats us up, breaks us down, and leaves us scratching our heads and wondering why we keep subjecting ourselves to this torture.

No matter how many times you run a terrible marathon, you’re always left thinking I know I can do better… 

And that’s exactly the attitude every runner should have about racing. After a few days of feeling bad for yourself, it’s time to focus on what you can learn from a bad marathon.

Amanda Loudin, a mom, writer, RRCA-certified running coach, and voice behind the MissZippy1 blog recommends learning from poor marathon experiences:

There’s so much you can learn from a bad marathon. Do you want to change your nutrition next time? Your taper? Your pacing approach? Examine everything and nail down what went wrong.

The next time, change things for the better. The 26.2 mile distance sometimes takes a little trial and error before you get it right. Use the bad ones to produce good ones in the future.

Instead of thinking of your race as a failure, think of it as a learning experience. Everything that went wrong is simply feedback that can improve future races

Bad races happen; that’s just the nature of our wonderful sport. They’re objective, pitting you against the clock. And the clock never lies.

To truly excel as a runner – to become the best runner you can be – requires a different approach to poor races.

You can surely feel bad about a marathon, but after a day or two take your pity party elsewhere. It’s time to focus.

3 Questions to Ask Yourself After a Bad Marathon

Instead of forgetting about bad races entirely, it’s helpful to perform a post-race analysis where you learn from any mistakes and improve your strategy for next time.

And the marathon is one of the best opportunities for this analysis because of its length: flaws become magnified with distance, so you can learn from even the smallest of errors.

Did you train appropriately?

This question is the most critical. Without proper preparation, you can’t expect to have a good race.

When I write custom marathon programs, I look for three training factors that ensure you’re ready to tackle a marathon:

  • Enough time: make sure you have at least 12 weeks to train specifically for the marathon
  • Adequate long runs: the LR is your #1 priority so make sure it’s already in the double digits when you start training for the marathon
  • Injury-free: you can’t train for a marathon if you’re nursing an injury

With enough time and a long run already in the double digits, most healthy runners can safely prepare for 26.2 miles if your goal is to simply finish.

But, if your goal is to run a personal best, “base training” should already be completed. PR-chasers should consider:

  • Weekly mileage: your total weekly volume of running should be “high” (relative to your ability)
  • Workouts: running fast at least once per week is mandatory so you should already be comfortable doing some type of workout every week
  • Longer long runs: for runners hoping for a PR, simply getting the LR to 20 miles isn’t enough – they must be more race-specific

These aspects of training need to be in place before your marathon training cycle. In other words, you can’t start from scratch and expect to run a good marathon. There’s a reason there’s no “Couch to Marathon” program!

Was your race strategy executed appropriately?

Even if your training went great, you can still run a poor marathon if you don’t have a sound racing strategy.

The most important question to ask yourself is, “Did I run too fast, too early?” Most marathoners should follow these guidelines:

  • Start slightly slower than your goal pace to help yourself warm up. Don’t let the race atmosphere suck you into a faster pace!
  • After 1-3 miles, ease into your goal pace and then try to run as consistently as possible
  • If the course is hilly, maintain an even effort on the uphills and downhills (i.e., go a little slower on the ups but a little faster on the downs)
  • Avoid picking up the pace at mile 17-20 if you feel good. Wait until mile 22 or 23 when the marathon really gets tough

Remember: no marathon can be won in the first few miles, but it can be lost! Get your pacing right to ensure you don’t hit the wall too early.

There are other things to remember as well:

Run the tangents! Courses are measured along the tangents so don’t swing wide around turns. Hug the corners whenever possible.

Start in the right corral. Avoid losing time behind slower runners or walkers by starting with the correct pace group.

Fuel right. Carb-loading for the marathon starts two days before the race. Learn more about fueling here.

Any one of these factors can ruin your marathon experience. Because of its length, a marathon has to be approached strategically so make sure you plan for each of these variables.

Were there outside factors affecting your race?

Even if you do everything right, there’s still a good chance you could have a bad race. Because the marathon magnifies obstacles between you and a successful race, it can be difficult to plan around these issues.

The weather is the single biggest problem you could face on race day. Amanda agrees:

Weather is a huge factor – remember Boston 2012? But even weather, for the most part, can usually be mitigated by choosing the right race at the right time. I fall apart in the heat so I decided that my best months for marathons are November and March, in hopes of avoiding warm temperatures.

A 2:25 marathoner friend of mine (and author of the Boston Course Guide) always reminds me that, “In the heat, I don’t compete!” You don’t have to take this extreme stance, but it shows that fast runners are extremely strategic about their races.

But warm temperatures aren’t the only weather factors to consider. The humidity and wind play a big part in how your body will respond to goal pace, so choose your race carefully.

Finally, the course itself can be an obstacle. Is it a net uphill course? Are there major hills in the worst imaginable locations (like Boston)? Are there numerous hairpin turns that sap your momentum?

If your goal is to run a fast marathon, avoid hilly courses and those that have too many 180-degree turns. The fastest courses will be flat with as few turns as possible.

Bad Marathons Aren’t the End of the World


After you finish a lackluster marathon, it’s natural to feel disappointed or even depressed. After all, you just spent 5 months preparing for a grueling event and it didn’t even go well!

But, the silver lining is that you now have a lot to learn from and improve upon for your next marathon. Amanda can’t agree more:

There’s no question that a bad marathon can be hard to get over because you have poured so much time preparing for it. But after a week, it’s important to pick yourself up, dust off, and figure out how to make the next one better. Start channeling your energy into the next event and focusing on getting it right.

Finally, at the end of the day, have some perspective. Yes, running is a big part of our lives, but unless we’re elites, it shouldn’t dominate our happiness. We run because it brings us joy, and letting a bad race bring us down for an extended period of time kills that joy.

I love this perspective. To get more advice from Amanda, be sure to check out her running blog. And thank her for contributing to this article!

If your goal is to run a fast marathon – or have the most pleasurable experience possible – remember these guidelines:

  • Train smart in the months leading up to the race
  • Pace yourself appropriately
  • Choose an easy course without monster hills
  • Pick a race that isn’t in the heat of summer or dead of winter

Follow these “rules” and you’ll maximize the chances of running a great marathon.

And if things didn’t go well for you, you now have the opportunity to analyze your race, figure out what went wrong, and be more strategic about your marathon approach next time.

Need help planning for your marathon? See how a personal training plan can help you accomplish all of your goals.

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  1. I would also like to add, see what surface you will be running on. I’ve had a couple races not go as expected from long stretches of gravel or sand. 🙂

  2. Thank you so much for including me! Great article full of really important advice.

  3. I ran a horrible marathon 5 months ago and really haven’t had the will to run more than 26.2 miles in a month since.

    The stupid thing is I followed my race strategy perfectly, but the strategy was so ridiculously stupid that I zombie-walked the last 8 miles. Looking back, I should have stepped over in the grass at about mile-18, curled up in a ball, sucked my thumb, and taken the wagon of shame back to my car. I would have been better off in the long run.

    On a side note, I think what you’re doing really helps a lot of people, Jason. That includes me. Your blog posts are thought-provoking, well-researched, and full of useful information.

    There’s many ways to benefit humankind and you’ve found one of them and you do it well. keep up the good work.

  4. Joe Greene says:

    There actually is a Couch-to-Marathon program:

    • Terrible idea. So irresponsible. BUT… this is 52 weeks! Who writes a 52 week training plan? And more importantly, who can actually follow it with no recovery weeks? I’m aghast at this.

      • Joe Greene says:

        I did use it as an outline to start getting some mileage buildup. I replaced some of the runs with other ideas I’ve culled from your site and a few marathoners I know, and I’ve taken 2 week long breaks since starting running again. I’m also a crazy long range planner, so this was exactly the kind or big picture I needed to see.

        I’ll use a real marathon plan once the time rolls around to actually run one (December), but this did help me envision just how slowly I needed to start after nearly a year of ITB and other issues.

  5. Hi,

    Great post on how to take lessons from the bad chapter of our life. You are right, losing a race isn’t the end of our life. It was just a chance to test our self. Analyze the preparations and mistakes. Taking necessary actions to remove those weakness we can become more strong.

    Wonderful and inspirational article, thanks for sharing 🙂


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