How to analyse your failures for future success
What to do when you don't hit your goals in career, health, and any other pursuit
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If you’re a ‘Type-A’ person, not much hurts more than failing to hit your goal.
If you don’t want to miss twice, how you dissect your ‘performance’ can play a major factor in the result of your next attempt.
In Lisbon recently I learnt a very tough lesson about how NOT to race a half-marathon.
It had been a goal of mine for 12 months to run 21.1km in under 80 minutes (3:47min/km).
To do this I had to shave 2 minutes off my PB from the Melbourne Half-Marathon in October 2022. I was meticulous with my training and my nutrition, but when it came to race day, quite frankly I shat the bed.
And it really stung.
At first, I was upset and thought what a waste of all that training when I could have been out seeing the world (I did my training whilst travelling through France, Morocco, Spain, and Portugal). But then I realised it actually might be an important bump in the road needed to hit my goal.
So what do you do when you metaphorically shit the bed? How do you turn a failure into your next success?
Today I’m going to walk you through what I did after missing my goal.
What to do when you don’t hit your goal?
Growth doesn’t come with time. It comes from iterations.
“Aim for 10,000 iterations, not 10,000 hours “ - Naval Ravikant
If nothing changes, nothing changes.
This example walks you through how I analyse a running race. However, the purpose of sharing this with you is so you can apply the fundamentals to any pursuit.
Just gave a pitch that flopped?
Failed to get a second interview?
Got overlooked for a promotion?
Use this process to understand where you went wrong and what changes you need to make in order to win.
Here’s how I went about it:
How to do this effectively
I hate solving the same problem twice.
If this is you, documenting is your best friend. This blog is mostly a reminder to myself of what to do next time I fail. Your future self will thank you when you want a head start and you already have a post-game analysis of a presentation, interview or running race to tell you where to begin.
Some of my best decisions have started with reading a reflection from 2 years prior (I started journaling regularly in 2020).
If you haven’t done this already, open up a new Word document, a page in your notebook, a Notion page or somewhere you can easily find your reflections. I use Notion to store, categorise, and search for all my journaling.
Step 1: Zoom out
Frustrated-sulky-Reuben is zero chance of ever breaking 80. So for me to get back to ‘LFG-Reuben’ I needed to zoom out. This means looking at the bigger picture.
This was the race I had completed a full training program since I was 19, trying to break 90 min for the first time, and my third attempt at racing for a time.
My first race attempt I hit my goal of sub-1:30 - 1:28:51 (2014)
Second race attempt I hit my goal of sub-1:24 - 1:22:02 (2022)
Third race attempt I missed my goal of sub-1:20 - 1:25:40 (2023)
In the grand scheme of all the races I’ll do in my life. It’s not many. I’ve played 243 games of cricket and know how hard it is to hit a century every innings.
In three serious half-marathon attempts, upon reflection, it seems like I’m trying to ton up every race.
Running has become the activity I can see myself doing for the next decade. There’s still time for me to hit my goal in this lifetime, and this failure might just be an important lesson on the road to hitting my goal.
Perhaps I had unrealistic expectations and a healthy bout of perfectionism. But for me to take the first step in using this experience positively, I needed to zoom out and remember it’s just one race on the road to breaking 80 minutes.
When thinking about the grand scheme of things, the fundamental questions to begin with are:
How long have you been working towards your goal?
How many attempts have you made to hit your goal?
How long in your life do you have left to hit this goal?
These questions can allow you to realise that perhaps you actually are relatively inexperienced, perhaps you still have time on your side, and that learning from your failed goal is an important step in reaching your goal. Out of the dumps and into a growth mindset quicker, ready to take the next right step.
You’re not a failure, maybe just a beginner.
But what is the next right step?
The beauty of running is there’s a lot of data available. If your goal is less obviously quantifiable, look for ways you can measure your inputs and outputs. The more you document things, the better comparisons you get, and the better your improvements become.
I broke the analysis of my race into two parts, ‘preparation’ and ‘execution’ and compared it with my PB race in 2022.
When I looked at my preparation for the Half-Marathon I found these comparisons vs 2022:
To summarise my preparation compared to 2022, I ran more kilometres, did more interval training, tested faster, and had more race-week rest, but no race-day warm-up (I’ll explain why soon).
On paper, I felt as though (at the very least!) I could match my time in 2022. But when I looked at my execution of the Half-Marathon I found these comparisons vs 2022:
To summarise the race:
It started well. I ran the first 10km in 37:06 (new PB), a full minute quicker than the first 10km in Melbourne 2022 (was a PB at the time). But the course had an elevation gain of +60 in the first 3.5km, in 2022 it was +8 for a slight hill in the first km.
This meant my heart rate went to 180 bpm by KM 2, whereas in 2022 my HR built up to 155 bpm by 8km, 168 bpm by km 9 and 179 by km 10.
On the backstretch is where it got ugly.
In 2023 I ran the second 10km in 43:22 (6:14 slower than first 10km), whereas in 2022 I ran the second 10km in 38:23 (almost identical to the first 10km). The streets of Lisbon were empty and offered little encouragement, in 2022 the Melbourne crowd was full and thinking about my friends at the finish line gave me extra motivation. But this year I was cooked by the 12km mark. When someone tried to encourage me to run with them I couldn’t keep the pace, whereas in 2022 I found someone to push each other through the final 5km.
I knew it almost immediately, but now I clearly understand why I failed: I went out too hard.
But why did this happen? And what was the impact of it?
Lisbon 2023 splits
Melbourne 2022 splits
One reason, the race time got pushed forward 90 minutes on the day of, and in the rush to get to the start line on time the adrenaline was pumping and I took off from the start line feeling frantic.
Another reason, I didn’t check the course. I assumed it was flat. So when a 60m hill greeted me at the start of the race, I flew over the top of it at a pace that was probably too quick even if I was running on a flat road.
My watch has a fast/slow alert to help me run consistently, and I actively ignored it in the first 5km thinking I needed to ‘get ahead’ so I’m not chasing time later. In pursuit of getting ahead, I also chose to follow a group that were way to quick for me. By km 12 I was absolutely gassed. The previous year, I remember saying ‘stick to your race Reuben’ and let a fast group go past me.
Sometimes we’re the worst at taking our own advice!
When you make a mistake, the significance of that mistake is important. Did I go out just a little bit too fast, or significantly too fast?
When diving into the data I was astonished to see the impact my effort had on my heart rate. In 2022 my maximum HR for the entire race was 186 bpm, and in 2023 I was running at 180 bpm almost immediately. This is ~95% of my Max HR. No wonder I could only hold it for 45 minutes.
It was a tough slog getting to the finish line knowing my PB attempt was off the table after thinking about it for a full year. But now I can clearly see where it went I went wrong and by how much.
Lisbon 2023 heart rate
Straight to max HR
Melbourne 2022 heart rate
Nice consistent build-up
Unless you know where you went wrong, it’s impossible to know what step to take next. Analysing your performance with all the data available to you allows you to see where your focus should be.
Jerry Seinfeld does this in comedy. When he thinks of a new joke, he field tests it in small comedy clubs before taking it on tour. He says the beauty of stand up comedy is that “100% of the feedback is accurate.”
When trying to analyse your performance and find out ‘WHY did I get this result?’, here’s how to approach it:
Analyse preparation vs execution
Analyse all the data available
What went well / what didn’t go well?
Now that you have a clear view of your performance, you can be smarter about what to do next.
3. Make changes
This is the most important part. If nothing changes, nothing changes.
Now that you know where you went wrong, write down how you’ll do it differently next time.
Although it’s great I have a new level of fitness, it’s no good that I didn’t know how to use it on race day.
It hurts going through it, but I now know that if I want to run a smooth race, I need to have a plan of attack. Next time I run a new race with an unfamiliar course, I’ll be driving or running it in advance so I know what I’m in for. This way I can plan accordingly. I now know hilly races require forethought and pacing compared to flat races.
From my analysis I can see that my preparation was better than before given my 10km testing time was faster.
Not to mention the fact it helped my 10km race time improve significantly, even whilst running uphill! For my next attempt, I’d be comfortable following the same training program.
When thinking about what changes to make, the fundamental questions are:
What area of my goal do I need to focus my attention?
What changes would lead to the most significant changes?
So there you have it.
Given my fault came in the execution of my goal, I’m tempted to put my learnings to good use and find another race soon while I’ve still got the fitness under my belt.
But after first feeling all doom and gloom, I’m really proud of the work I put in. Although I didn’t get the time I wanted, this goal represented 12 weeks of discipline to train 4-5 times a week whilst travelling to new places and running a business. Something that took a lot of time management. In the process, I still ran my second-fastest time and ran on some spectacular roads (including a sunset interval session on the mountain ridge of Eze overlooking the French Riviera, and a week-high 74kms in Toss de Mar in Spain).
One day I’m sure I’ll wish my body moved like it used to, so I’m grateful running is a goal I’m currently able to pursue.
For now, I’m on the south coast of Turkey, doing a light jog here or there, and enjoying a beer with dinner. But when that itch comes back, I know I’ll be better prepared than ever to finally break that damn 80-minute mark.
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