Tips for a Positive Post-Season Retrospective
A sports psychologist’s top tips for managing the comparison trap and focusing on next year
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We runners tend to love our data, and for good reason. Tracking and analyzing our mileage, pace, heart rate, and more helps us better understand where we are in our running journey and what we can do to improve.
That holds especially true now, as we hit the postseason. Not only can we look back at a year’s worth of our running data, but those of us on certain tracking apps will also soon receive automated year-end summaries—which, of course, we’ll probably share on social media.
As will our running buddies. And our local competition. And all the runners we don’t actually know but follow on social media.
Now, looking back on your data can have loads of benefits, and seeing other runners share their numbers can be a fun way to connect. But there can also be a downside to all that year-end data— especially if you haven’t exactly had the season you’d hoped for, says Hayley Russell, a professor at Gustavus Adolphus College who holds a PhD in Sport Psychology and focuses her research on the psychology of running and sport injury.
“When runners reflect on their year, it’s likely they will have complicated emotions. That’s even more true when reviewing data from a tracker like Strava, where runners often compare their performance with other runners, their own previous performance, or the performance that they hoped for but didn’t attain,” Russell says. “Regardless of the type of comparison they’re making or how they feel about the year, looking at data can spark motivation for next season—but it can also make runners feel like they’re not good enough or bring up feelings of frustration, anxiety, or regret.”
Fortunately, there are some relatively simple ways to look back on your season without letting those mixed emotions get in the way. But first, it’s important to understand what it is about that data that’s got you feeling down—and just how much of your story those numbers actually tell.
Data Comparison – for Better and for Worse
If you didn’t hit the goals you set at the start of the year, digging through your data and seeing how it compares to what you’d hoped to achieve, to your previous years, or to other people’s accomplishments can be downright painful, as Lindsay McClelland, a 35-year-old runner in Charlotte, North Carolina, learned.
“I really struggled during pregnancy and my first year postpartum,” says McClelland, an experienced marathoner and competitive age-group runner. She knows what it takes to compete at a high level, having qualified for Boston five times, and although she knew pregnancy would mean a change in her training, she admitted, “It was hard to be on Instagram or Strava and see people hitting these huge mileage milestones when, for me, a 3-mile run was a big deal.”
Even now, with her son nearing his third birthday and her pace right back where she wants it, she still feels that pressure. “You can be feeling super secure about your performance but get that twinge of doubt when what other people are doing is clearly broadcasted in your face,” McClelland says.
Comparison – both to others and ourselves – is a normal part of life, Russell says.
“Social comparison theory suggests that people determine their own value by comparing themselves to others,” she says. “These comparisons can sometimes be motivating, but they can also be discouraging and lead to dissatisfaction, guilt, or negative health behaviors such as disordered eating or overtraining.”
How to Avoid the Data Comparison Trap
If you find that comparing yourself to others is impacting you negatively, Russell recommends limiting your time on social media and avoiding making false barometers out of what others have accomplished or posting about—especially because what people post isn’t always an accurate depiction of their reality, either.
“Notice when a post makes you feel bad, and consider why that is,” she says. “Would you be happier if you didn’t follow that person? Is it triggering something you’re insecure about in yourself?”
Of course, you’ll still know your numbers, and it’s likely you’ll hear about other people’s data, especially when they’re proud of an achievement. And that’s OK. We should be able to celebrate our running buddies’ wins, even if we aren’t having the most successful year ourselves, right? But, Russell says, it’s also important to remember that when you see another runner’s impressive achievements, that data is only part of the story.
“You don’t know what they sacrificed for those numbers – health, time, relationships,” she says. “Try to keep in perspective that this is just one piece of a person’s life.”
That’s something you should keep in mind for yourself, too, when you compare your data from one year to another.
“It’s helpful to consistently remind yourself that you are more than a runner,” Russell says. “You are a multifaceted person who will have ups and downs in all areas of your life.”
Data Is Information – and Nothing More
When the data doesn’t match up with your dreams, you might find yourself in a bit of a funk. And, Russell says, “It’s OK to feel disappointed with a running season that didn’t go as planned.” She suggests allowing yourself to feel those emotions without allowing yourself to wallow. “Data is information and nothing more,” she added. “It is not a reflection of your value or worth as a runner – or as a person.”
That being said, you can know this in your heart and still struggle with the fact that those numbers aren’t what you expected them to be, and that’s when Russell recommends runners look at their data from a different point of view.
How to Overcome the Disappointment
Work on being curious, not judgmental, about those numbers, Russell suggested.
“If the data is making you feel bad, give yourself a little time and space, and then return to it with the intention of exploration,” she says. “Make sure to consider the other successes and challenges you had during the season and look for wins. Maybe you rehabbed successfully from an injury, maybe you took time off when you were feeling burnout.” Successes – or even challenges – at work or other areas of your life may have taken time away from your running. “This is all a part of the picture of your running season,” Russell explained.
So, instead of cursing that low mileage number, take a moment to examine which months fell short and think about what else was going on. Most likely, you did the best you could under the circumstances, so show yourself some kindness. But even if you could have handled things differently and made your training a higher priority, remaining curious about how to do this makes it easy to learn the lesson and file it away for the future, where it can help. Stewing about it now? Not so useful.
A Holistic Approach to the Postseason Retrospective
OK, so you know data doesn’t tell the whole story, and you’re willing to look back on your year of running in a different way. What’s next?
“Start with gratitude,” Russell says. “There is a growing body of research that supports the many benefits of gratitude. Consider beginning your postseason reflection with a gratitude exercise.”
That might take the form of writing a gratitude letter to yourself and your body, or, Russell says, “you could do a ‘Three Good Things’ exercise where you identify three good things that happened in your running season and what you did to make them happen. Even in a running season that didn’t go as planned, there are still things to be grateful for. Begin with that focus.”
At some point, it’s important to embrace what you achieved and not look down upon it, but instead use it as a benchmark for which to improve upon next year. You did what you could do and, no matter if injuries, family, work or life got in the way of your progress, celebrate it as a part of a bigger scope of your life and look forward.
“What can you learn from the season?” Russell poses. “What do you need to do next season to improve?”
Before Next Season Begins …
As you start thinking about next season, pay close attention to your goals – particularly if you fell short of them this year or have a history of doing so.
“I think one of the most important things with data is to start from where you are, not where you wish you were,” Russell says. “You want to set challenging but realistic goals for next season, so focus on improving from where you are now.”
She recommends having a variety of goals; some should be related to improving your performance (like setting a marathon PR), and some to the behaviors that will help you achieve those performance goals (such as strength training three days a week). A mix of short term (first race) and long term (end of season) goals are also important, as is a willingness to adjust throughout the season due to injury, illness, family, or work.
“This doesn’t mean abandoning goals for the season but instead adjusting to goals that are more realistic to sustain motivation and enthusiasm throughout the season,” she says.
And, she added, gratitude isn’t just for the postseason—she also recommends intentionally practicing gratitude throughout the season. What can you be grateful for in each run? Each race? Each phase of your training cycle?
A great way to do this is to remember why you run, and, for McClelland, this ties directly into her running community. “Community is a huge part of my ‘why’ with this sport,” she says. She loves making friends, remaining present so she can experience the course, and telling stories after a race, and adds she’s also really enjoyed giving back to her community as a part of the Charlotte Running Club’s pace team. “It’s so fun, and it gives me a little more purpose to help others reach their goals,” she says.
As you look back on the last year—and begin to look forward to the next—it’s important to remember that change is the biggest constant we’ll see.
“Running, like life, comes with a huge range of emotions and experiences, opportunities and setbacks,” Russell says. “Some years will make a runner feel excited and proud and others might feel disappointing and discouraging.” Regardless, maintaining an attitude of gratitude as you learn from the ups – and the downs – of the past year is the best way to prepare for the one to come.