Why failing your training goal might be what you need

Think that you’ve had a bad race if you don’t manage to run a PB or your gym session was pointless if you didn’t lift as heavy as you’d hoped? Well, sometimes, not meeting your fitness goals is exactly what you need, says writer and runner Melissa Albarran.

Whether it’s missing out on that sub-30 Parkrun PB, struggling to squat your target weight, or falling in tree pose, failing to hit a training goal is gutting.

I am acutely aware of this feeling, having recently and spectacularly missed out on a race time I had been training toward for months. Despite a good build-up, a solid night’s sleep and sound nutrition, on the day, things just didn’t go my way. Instead, I found myself limping at the side of the road and crying on the phone to my partner that I just couldn’t do it.

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Now I know I’m no Paula Radcliffe, and in the grand scheme of things, my time means nothing, but hobbling on the side of the road that day, I couldn’t help but feel embarrassed and disappointed in myself.

I got through the race. With lots of walking, another teary call to my ever-patient boyfriend, and the kind words of some fellow runners, I made it to the finish line. My target time? Out the window.

And after all that, you know what? I’m not mad about it.

How to turn fitness failure into a long-lasting positive

Lumbering through that last mile, I had the chance to reflect on how far my fitness had actually come – an opportunity that would likely not have been afforded to me had I been sprinting over that finish line. The race was done and, yes, I didn’t get the time I was hoping for, but I still put in weeks of hard work to make it to the start line and that alone was worth shouting about.

Rachel Mathia, a mindset coach, agrees. Rather than focusing on a ‘bad’ performance, she encourages clients to reflect on what they have achieved and to consider the internal muscles that have been built, such as resiliency, confidence and determination. 

Reframe your mindset

Mathia explains that when we miss out on a training goal, we build our resilience muscle which prepares us to deal with other challenges that may come our way – whether that’s lifting a barbell or navigating a breakup. Each time we experience a failure in the gym, yoga class or pool, we are actually building our ability to cope with other obstacles, learn from criticism and persist through adversity. Choosing to look at a ‘failure’ as an opportunity to learn and grow can help us to become stronger, more capable individuals.

Sandra Martin, an instructor at Boom Cycle, echoes this sentiment: “Sometimes, the best thing that could happen to you is failure,” she tells Stylist. “It’s a fresh opportunity to be better, to learn more about ourselves. Failure puts life into perspective, it teaches us to be grateful, to fight for what we want and makes it so much more enjoyable when we finally get to where we wanted to be. The top of the mountain is absolutely nothing without the climb”.

Missing your goal could be indicative of so many things, from stress to poor training. But it can also open the doors to fresh ways of thinking and new forms of training.

Ignore your inner saboteur

But what about when you see the stream of congratulatory finisher photos or impressive #gymselfies? It’s hard to see the upside when every post on your timeline is another PB.

Mathia advises alleviating external triggers that cause you to be critical of yourself, like obsessive doomscrolling. Comparing yourself to others encourages negative self-talk, and creates a sense of worthlessness, which may well make you risk-averse. This can ultimately cause you to spiral and paralyses you from taking on new challenges or taking new opportunities.

By refusing to engage with that internal saboteur, whether that’s by deleting Instagram for a few days or spending time with your support network, you prevent this dangerous cycle from taking place. 

Evaluate your performance

Running coach Lynette Low suggests carrying out an objective review of your performance a few days after the event can help. 

“Maybe you weren’t consistent enough or maybe you experienced a lot of stress throughout your training programme. Life happens; acknowledge what worked well and where you maybe didn’t quite hit the mark,” she suggests.

Conducting an impartial review of your training and the day itself gives you an opportunity to appreciate what went wrong, and what you can improve on for the next time. In this way, each missed goal is a chance to learn and collect feedback for future competitions, races or events.

Use it as motivation

For Low, a missed time can act as a driving force to plan future races and improve on performance. She says: “Every disappointment is an opportunity to improve and to dig deeper to reach that goal next time… Looking forward to the next challenge or goal is always a great way to bounce back. 

“After some recovery and downtime, get excited about what’s next.” It may not feel great at the time, but missing out on a training goal may be just what you need to push that little bit harder next time.

In fact, a 2019 study conducted by Northwestern University found that scientists who had experienced failures earlier on in their careers went on to be more successful in their profession. The results lend themselves to the hypothesis that failure can act as a valuable lesson and may strengthen our resolve to better ourselves. While benching a PB isn’t quite the same as flying to space, this research is indicative of a wider trend: that failure can motivate you to meet or even surpass your ambitions.

Try something new

If you can’t stand the thought of setting foot in the gym or on the start line for a while, why not give something different a go? Martin suggests that missing out on a goal can inspire you to try something completely new and break out of your comfort zone. 

Maybe take up a team sport, try a new dance class or give kickboxing a go. Martin adds that a poor performance may be your body’s way of telling you something is off. Check in with your mind and body, and consider taking some time to try something different with a fresh perspective and energy.

Maybe it’s time that I *finally* give netball a go?

Fancy a challenge that has no time-limit or external pressure? Hop over to the Strong Women Training Club and give one of our strength training plans a go.

Images: Getty/ author’s own

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