Bad Race Tool for Learning

The What Went Wrong Log



Recently, an athlete I coach had a bad race. To him, the poor performance seemed to come from out of nowhere. Like all of us do, he began to doubt himself. He began to doubt his training. He began to doubt his coach. How could he be so fit one day and so unfit the next?

When I discussed this predicament with Trina Painter, former U.S. 20K champion and record-holder and now a successful high school coach, she suggested a simple way to help. Her suggestion evolved into what we call the “What Went Wrong Log.”


The What Went Wrong Log is easy to use and, within minutes, usually identifies the cause of your poor performance or injury, a big relief for both coach and athlete. Start with a sheet of paper or computer spreadsheet. Starting at the top of the page, number each row or line down the page from 0 to 21. This will correspond to the 21 days prior to the injury or poor performance. Why 21 days? It’s often called the training lag and it reflects the phenomenon where training seems to catch up to you after three weeks or so. Due to this training lag, it’s important to look back the full 21 days when trying to identify the cause of your problem. Our experience is that nearly every poor performance or injury was birthed during the previous three weeks.

Note: Don’t use a calendar; use a column in order to stack the days one on top of another. Calendars fool us into thinking it’s a “new” week but the body doesn’t know weeks. The body knows only what you did to it yesterday and the day before and the day before. It knows no Monday. It knows no Sunday. It only knows “tired from long run” or “recovered from workout, ready for more.” Thus, you must lay out the days in a series.

For each day, jot down the “training stress” for that day – things like easy run, track workout, long run, etc. Since most of us follow a training plan, we can usually recall (using our log) what we did on each day. Though easy to recall, the training stress information is often the “revealer” as you suddenly realize that you’ve stacked too many stressful training days together. In this column also list any other factors that impacted the training stress – hot/humid conditions, cold weather, wind, hilly terrain, etc. It’s a good idea to always include this type of information in your training log, so that you can easily gather the relevant data when examining the reasons for a subsequent poor performance.

Next, go through and circle your particularly stressful training days. All of your key workouts and long runs/races will be circled, as well as any day you can remember where you may have experienced a lot of stress (running too fast, difficult weather, breathing issues, etc.). If you see several circled days stacked too close together, that is probably what led to your poor performance, and you can use this information as you go forward in your training to avoid the problem in the future.

If the training stress information doesn’t reveal where the problem started, then you should go through each day and think about your recovery from each day’s running. Rate your recovery using simple ratings like great, normal, or compromised. If your training log isn’t detailed enough, you might have to think hard for this information, but you may remember things like not eating enough after a long workout or feeling really dehydrated but not being able to rehydrate like you normally would. Or maybe your warm-down or stretching routine was compromised. What about sleep? Did you not get your normal sleep on a night or two? Is there something there that seems amiss? You may see that for a period of time, your recovery was inadequate. This may have been the start of your problem.

The next area to log is life stress. Like training stress, this one is pretty easy to recall by looking back at your work/life calendar. Things like working late or stressful work would go here. Maybe the car broke down or the child got sick. Life happened. Something caused extra stress. It could be working long hours, it could be travel, or it could be emotional distress or illness. Were you simply busier than usual, did it suddenly get hot/humid or bitterly cold? All of these are additional stressors that can cause poor performances. Consult your day-timer for help in remembering non-running activities.


After you’ve laid out your What Went Wrong Log – and be honest since you are trying to help yourself and aren’t proving anything to anyone — look down your rows, one by one, and circle any compromised situations. Circle all hard workouts and races, circle all compromised recoveries, circle all increased life stress days. Trina uses a red pen just to emphasize the stressful days. I bet when you complete this step, the reason for your poor performance will jump out at you: You’ll see several circled days with little recovery.

The greatest benefit to the What Went Wrong Log is to help overcome all the emotional distress from the poor performance. While the performance will still be there, at least there is a logical reason for it. It wasn’t just the universe being mean to you. Having an objective, black and white (and red) account of what your previous training and life has been like helps overcome the hopelessness and “why me” feeling. Plus, the log and what it reveals are instructive for future training and racing. You’ll know to respect the impact of training and life stress on performance and, hopefully, manage them better before something goes wrong. Read the Benefits of Bad Workouts.

Download the What Went Wrong Log template (pdf)
Download a sample completed What Went Wrong Log (pdf)



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Written By Greg McMillan
Called “one of the best and smartest distance running coaches in America” by Runner’s World’s Amby Burfoot, Greg McMillan is renowned for his ability to combine the science of endurance performance with the art of real-world coaching. While getting his graduate degree in Exercise Science he created the ever-popular McMillan Running Calculator – called “The Best Running Calculator” by Outside Magazine. A National Champion runner himself, Greg coaches runners from beginners to Boston Qualifiers (15,000+ and counting!) to Olympians.

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