On the Comeback Trail

Despite intense preparation and a maximum effort, your competitive season didn’t go as planned. How do you recoup and regroup?

In 2000, Barb Lindquist was the top-ranked American female triathlete and a shoo-in for the first-ever Olympic triathlon team. At the Olympic trials race, Lindquist led out of the water and throughout the bike, but during the run, her race unraveled — as it had in several previous races — in the heat. “It was the death of a dream,” Lindquist says of the experience, adding that it cast a shadow over her entire season. “All the good races couldn’t erase the disappointment of not racing in Sydney.”

Lindquist refused to stay down for long. “I reflected on it and gave myself a grieving period,” she recalls. Then it was time to learn from it and move on: Assess what went wrong, adjust her training program and racing strategy, and find opportunity in her misfortune.

You don’t have to be gunning for Olympic gold to benefit from such analysis after a disappointing season. Any athlete with a goal needs to know how to make revisions in his or her training and race strategy, recoup mentally and physically, and regain perspective.

Analyze and Adjust

Amateur triathlete Scott Zuege, of Tulsa, Okla., says it was hard to figure out what went wrong with his race seasons in 2005 and 2006. “You always look back and see you should’ve done something differently,” he laments. He eventually came to the conclusion that he needed to train differently. He increased the number of his workouts, but decreased the volume, allowing for more speed work. The change had the desired result, and then some. “With extra speed comes self-confidence,” he says.

Lindquist, who has since retired as a professional triathlete and now coaches the under-23 athletes for USA Triathlon, says this introspection is an important component of an athlete’s progress. “After every race, you should evaluate what you did — even in wins. How was your warm-up, race strategy, training? It’s the same process after a disappointment.”

After the failed Olympic bid, Lindquist and her coach, husband Loren Lindquist, studied her performance. “We knew I struggled with the heat,” she says. “We talked to doctors and investigated the problem. I had to be able to race in the heat; it couldn’t be an Achilles’ heel for the rest of my career.” The solutions, she discovered, weren’t particularly complicated. She bought a special hat that kept her head cool and placed small ice bags around her neck and under her hat during transitions.

Reevaluating expectations and goals may also improve race performance — or at least how you perceive it. After Zuege, then 46, became a triathlete in 2001, he did just that. “It didn’t take long to realize I was not going to win many awards,” he says. “I gave myself permission to be average and began to concentrate on getting better.” He knew that by putting in his best effort and racing against himself, he could set his own personal records and have fun along the way.

Recuperate

Restoring the body and mind after a difficult race, and especially after the race season, is important. If you didn’t perform well, you may feel the temptation to keep training to avenge your bad season. And you may find it difficult to let go emotionally.

Lindquist approached that challenge by no longer thinking of each training session or each race as a stepping-stone to something else. Meanwhile, she regained her love for triathlon. “Coming away from that loss, I tried to enjoy each subsequent race as its own experience,” she says. “I didn’t think about the big picture. I went in the opposite direction — I thought about the small picture.”

Sometimes recuperating can be more of a struggle, especially if your disappointing season was caused by illness or injury. Such was the case for Kim Kazimour, 50, from Gainsville, Fla., who crashed her bicycle in 2003 and broke her pelvis. Her normally intense training schedule was reduced to swimming, easy riding on a stationary bike and using the elliptical trainer.

The most trying part of her recovery began two months later, when she was cleared to run again. Indeed, she could run, but only for one minute at a time, alternating with walking, for a total distance of one-half mile. “I envisioned something magical would happen because I’d been so patient for two months; that I would be back to my old self,” Kazimour recalls. But her recovery did not unfold as she imagined.

“For the next month, I was making such snail-pace progress that I thought I might never really run again,” she says. But she steadily improved, increasing her volume and pace. By the end of the year, she had set a personal best in the 5K. That’s when she knew the change of pace and routine had ultimately helped her. “The experience led me to understand I could be more flexible in how I was staying active.”

Of course, you don’t have to be injured to initiate these changes. “Sometimes you have a bad season because of the same, stale training program, so mix it up,” Lindquist advises. (See “Are We Having Fun Yet?” and “Active Recovery” in the March 2007 and October 2004 archives, respectively.)

Regain Perspective

When you walk away from a race season feeling wounded — whether it’s your pride or a physical injury — it may be tempting to spike your Gatorade, draw the blinds and wallow in your disappointment, but next season will be more successful if you channel those emotions in ways that motivate you.

Lindquist says you have to believe your training eventually will pay off. “It may not be that race or that season,” she says. “You have to have faith that all the work is going to show up somewhere down the line.”

Kazimour concurs. She says that rebounding from a difficult season taught her to be kinder to herself. “Having some down days doesn’t mean you’re a wimp.”

Unearthing such insights from the depths of misfortune can ultimately be more valuable than the physical gains you produce from your normal fitness regimen. Indeed, Lindquist bounced back from her Olympic-sized disappointment in 2000 to win the Life Time Fitness Triathlon in 2002 and 2003, earning $300,000 in prize money. “If I had made the Olympic team in 2000, I would have had less hunger over the next four or five years,” she says. “I might not have had those wins.”

In addition, Lindquist became the World’s No. 1 female triathlete in 2003 and held that ranking longer than any other male or female in the sport. In 2004, she made the Olympic team, finishing ninth in Athens.

She retired from triathlon in 2005, and in 2006 realized another dream — becoming a mother — when she gave birth to twin boys. All her earnings, which she had tucked away, are now being put to good use. “That prize money allows me to be a stay-at-home mom,” Lindquist says, her hindsight confidently putting that failed Olympic bid into perspective.

Kara Douglass Thom is the author of Becoming an Ironman: First Encounters with the Ultimate Endurance Event (Breakaway Books, 2001) and a children’s book,See Mom Run (Breakaway Books, 2003).

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