How to Deal with a DNF

All the fitness motivation sayings tell you to push through the pain. “Pain is weakness leaving the body,” they say. “No, pain, no gain!”  But they’re wrong.

Let me back up a little. On Saturday, I was running The Woodlands. I was on track to PR, feeling like I was flying. Then, a little over halfway through, I started feeling actual pain in my left hamstring. I tried walking it off, but that didn’t help. I stopped at the medical tent, and the lady there was a physical therapist who told me that it was cramped up pretty bad, really knotted, and that I might not finish. She advised me to get some sugars and try to walk it off, but her prognosis was grim. I drank some Gatorade and kept walking, hoping that the pain would go away.

It did not go away. As I told my husband later, it was about a six on the pain scale. I couldn’t run on it. And just like that, I had a choice to make: push through the pain and risk making it a whole lot worse, or listening to my body, shelving my pride, and taking a DNF.

I took a DNF and headed back to my hotel with my tail between my legs, and it stings a lot. But not as much as it would sting if I really injured myself and had to give up running for weeks, if not months. I started running eight years ago to be healthier. In that time, I’ve gotten swept up in competitive running, in distance running, in a “push through it” mentality that had me running Houston in 2017 on a sprained ankle, and then being out of running for six weeks. Every time I’m out, I go a little crazy. This time, I realized that it would be better to take a week off running (which I was planning to do anyway) than to be forced to take more when the pain got worse. 

At that moment, on the side of the road in The Woodlands, waiting on a ride, I realized what my priorities really are. I’m not a professional athlete, never have been and never will be. I’m someone who loves running, but also loves being healthy. I work out so that I can stay mobile and keep up with my kids, so I can enjoy family adventures and life in general. Exacerbating my hamstring injury would completely go against everything I’ve been working at for years. It’s one thing to be sore because you put in some hard work. It’s another thing to feel pain and keep going, and likely cause a serious injury that would make it impossible to walk for any length of time, especially right before spring break.

It is hard to take a DNF. It is hard to make the decision to listen to your body and stop when everything around you is telling you to push through it, including your own pride. But pain isn’t weakness leaving your body. Pain is your body saying, “Cut that out!” Pain is a warning, and sometimes you’ll get more than one warning. Sometimes it will start out with a twinge that means you need to pull back a little. Sometimes it will be a five or six on the pain scale telling you that yes, you can keep going, but it will be excruciating at the end.

So, as someone who has run plenty of races, who has pushed through pain and found that it’s not worth it, I’m saying that it’s okay to DNF. Listening to your body is not failure. It’s smart. There will be other races (Houston 2021 for me), and there will be time to recover. If it hurts, stop doing it.

How to Deal with a DNF

Nevertheless, it’s not easy to take a DNF. It’s a race you entered, trained for, and then didn’t finish. There will be no pretty pictures of you on social media, holding your shiny new medal. Here’s how to come back after a DNF:

  1. Take some time for mental self-care. It’s a huge ego blow (for me at least) to have taken a DNF. Be kind to yourself and remind yourself of all you accomplished already. Most people don’t sign up for and train for a race. You did. That, in itself, is a big deal.
  2. Let your body heal. More often than not, taking the DNF means that you headed off serious injury. Talk to your doctor before you start training in any form again. (I have to say that). And take it easy: long walks, slow bike rides, some gentle yoga. Foam roll like it’s your job. If you come back too soon, you’ll risk another DNF in your next race.
  3. Figure out where things went wrong. In my case, it’s likely because my left side is weaker than my right side, and it was struggling to keep up. In another runner’s case, it could be a bad pre-race meal, or poor hydration, or …? There are so many reasons why a race could go south, and the longer the race is, the more reasons there are. You might need to see a doctor to find out what happened. But once you know, you can learn from it. (And yes, I’m making a chiropractor’s appointment after I check to see who’s on my insurance.)
  4. If necessary, correct what went wrong. In my case, the aforementioned chiropractor will likely give me a list of rehab exercises to do. And I’ll grit my teeth and do glute bridges and bird dogs every day if it means I can balance my body out.
  5. Look forward! This is the most important part. Fitness, life, and running are not linear journeys, as much as we want them to be. We all have bad races and bad seasons – talk to anyone who’s been running for any length of time, and she will tell you that one year she was hitting BQs effortlessly, and the next year, she was battling with a half marathon. There will be other runs, other races, other seasons.

Bottom line: there is nothing wrong in taking a DNF. It’s better to stop before pain becomes a serious injury that requires you to stop running for a significant amount of time.

Pain is not weakness leaving the body. Pain is your body’s way of warning you that something is wrong, and if your goal is general health and fitness (like me), it’s time to stop before it gets worse.


2 thoughts on “How to Deal with a DNF

  1. A DNF is never fun, but it can definitely be the smart decision. I had one DNF where I was so dehydrated and confused — just steps from the finish line that I didn’t end up crossing. But the most important thing is that I’m healthy now and have run many races since then! I learned from both that experience and another run in the heat that landed me in the hospital.

    1. It’s definitely hard to make that decision, but it ends up being the smart move, definitely.

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