How To Manage & Prevent a DNF In Racing

DNF In Racing
Flickr Image - Joanna Pan

The three most painful letters no runner ever wants to see: DNF.

This is every runner’s worst nightmare and one of the toughest decisions to make. When this happens to you, you’ll be frustrated, devastated, and disappointed.

But don’t let DNF destroy your resolve – one race doesn’t Define who you are. Talk to any runner who has been around the racing world for a while, and you’ll find they have DNF’d at least one or more times in their running career. There’s no way around that.

But would you like to learn how to manage or prevent those DNFs from happening? Then you have come to the right place.

In this article, I’ll explain what DNFs are all bout as well as the common causes for a DNF, how they happen, and how you can prevent them from turning into an obstacle to the finish line.

What Is A DNF In Racing?

DNF is an acronym for Did Not Finish, which is anytime a runner crosses the starting line of a race but, due to injury, illness, etc., walks off the course during the race and never makes it to the finish line.

Anyway.

Since you’re here, you likely already know this.

A DNF can strike for different reasons – whether you wound up too dehydrated, got injured during the event, fell ill, or had any other unforeseen circumstances.

Understanding the causes behind a DNF can drastically improve your odds of avoiding one next time and be able to embrace the suck if they happen in the future.

Deciding to pull the plug on a race is one of the hardest racing decisions a runner has to make. But it’s a decision we all must make one day or another.

And most likely, what you want to know is how to avoid DNFs in the future—or at least when to DNF and when NOT to DNF.

Additional Resource – Can You Run With An Abdominal Strain?

DNS Vs. DNF Vs. DQ

DNS and DQ are other common terms that might be confused with DNF but mean different things.

DNS stands for Did Not Start. This means the runner has registered for the race, maybe even picked up their race kit, but chose not to show up to the start line.

As far as I can tell, DNS is not frustrating as DNF since you haven’t shown up to the race venue with the hope of finishing the event.

In most cases, DNS happens when the runner realizes they won’t be able to make it to the race beforehand.

But when a DNS strikes due to volatile circumstances, it can be a huge disappointment. Death in the family, hurricanes, sickness, injury, and last-minute work, are classic causes of a DNS.

DQ stands for disqualified. This is when a runner has finished the event, but their performance isn’t recognized.

For example, expect to get disqualified during a race if you cut short or take unauthorized aids, such as hopping on public transport, etc.

What’s more?

An athlete can be pronounced disqualified in elite races after a positive doping control. Sprinters can also get disqualified due to an early start.

Additional Resource – How to Make yourself poop before a run.

When Not To DNF While Racing

DNFing, the right way and for the right reasons, can save you a lot of trouble. But there are times when you shouldn’t go that route. This is the case even if every fiber of your being is against finishing the race.

What you risk from DNFing for no good reason is that it may become a habit. Once you allow it once, it becomes easier and easier to pull the plug next time.

Most races are designed to push you out of your comfort zone, regardless of how hard you trained your heart.

Whether you’re tackling a longer distance for the first time or striving for a new PR, you should feel uncomfortable. A good race is no easy walk in the park and all that.

Don’t DNF if you answer yes to any of the following:

  • Does walking away sound like the easy way out? (this is how you build the habit of being a quitter, and you don’t want that)
  • Do you have another race coming? (focus on this race, worry about the other when the time comes).

Additional Resource- Here’s the full guide to RPE in running.

When You REALLY should DNF When Racing

In contrast to what your ego might believe, there’s no shame in a DNF. Run long enough, and you’ll, sooner or later,  have to face making that hard decision.

As a rule, never consider quitting a race because it isn’t going your way or you don’t feel like finishing.

Change your mindset the moment you catch yourself having these ideas. Instead of giving up, slow down your pace, take a deep breath, and relax.

In other words, change your goal.

Here’s the truth. Racing isn’t always about achieving PRs or beating a specific finish time goal. Don’t let your ego get in the way of your success.

Instead, make the conscious decision to enjoy the rest of the race. You can think of the race as just another training run with fun and aid stations.

But sometimes, stepping out of the race might be the ONLY SAFE option. Consider not finishing a race if any of the following describes you:

  • Feel unsafe due to a change in the environment or failed gear.
  • Have a severe accident on the course that left you injured
  • Your body is not reacting as it should due to some health problems
  • If you feel pain beyond being tired after running

If any of these describe you, I urge you to consider abandoning the race as soon and as safely as possible. It’s always better to err on the side of caution—rather than the other way around.

Additional Resource – Here’s the full guide lower abdominal pain while running.

When To DNS From a Race

Although your ego would say otherwise, there’s no shame in a DNS. In some cases, just like a sound DNF, a DNS is the only safe option, and it’s key to know when it’s the right thing to do, given the circumstances.

Consider the following before deciding to DNS a race:

  • Have you been missing too many training runs?
  • Have you had a high temperature on the days before the event day?
  • Are you experiencing chronic pain or injury?
  • Do you feel isolated sharp pain while running?
  • Are you dealing with a stubborn illness?
  • Have you been under too much stress?

If your answer is yes to one—or more—of these, then you should seriously consider pulling the plug on the race.

Trying to join a race when coming down with an illness or chronic injury will exasperate symptoms and drastically hinder recovery.

Additional Reading – Here’s your guide to obstacle race course training.

What’s Next After A DNF – Damage Control

So what happens after you DNF a race?

Well, for starters, you’re still alive and definitely can run another day.

In the following days of a DNF, it’s key to forgive yourself. Remember that you did your best but had to quit because it’s the best for your body and mind.

Let’s check some practical tips.

Additional resource – Running with a labral tear

Accept your DNF

The road to healing begins with acceptance.  Sure, feel free to grieve. Be angry. Shout. Get it out of your system.

But then comes a time when you must come to terms with what happened.

Additional Resource – Your Guide to Groin Strains While Running

Talk About it

If you’re overly dismayed by a DNF, it’s key to remind yourself that this is normal. Nothing to be ashamed of. Let yourself be upset, bummed out, or whatever is going through your head.

Only time will help you process what happened. I’d recommend sharing your experience with others, mainly someone you trust, or writing it down. At least you can get it out of your head and heart.

Additional resource – Should I run Today? 

Recovery

Even though you didn’t finish the race, chances are you still have logged a drastic portion of the training as well as of the race.

A DNF can take a toll physically and emotionally, so give your body enough time to recover instead of jumping into an intense training plan.

Whether you DNF a half marathon at only the halfway mark or 10 miles in, it’s still a big stressor to your body.

Hence the need for recovery. At the very least, take a few training days, focusing on proper sleep, stretching, active recovery, and so on.

It’s key not to underestimate or invalidate the amount of work you have accomplished, even without a flashy medal to brag about at the end.

Additional resource – Here’s how much water a runner should drink

Do A Post-Race Review

Analyze your race day and find out precisely what causes the DNF. By doing this, you’ll be able to gather key information that will help you alter your training approach and improve your next race performance.

What is your hydration plan? Was your nutrition off?

Was it your pacing?

Technique?

Hydration? Apparel or gear failure? Get the root of the problem, then work on it.

Was the temperature and/or not as planned and expected? Did you have stomach issues from something you ate the night before?

Was it just too much?

The truth is that DNFs strike for all sorts of reasons, and these reasons are the best teachers you can have during your running career.

Additional Resource – Here’s the full guide to feeling bloated after running

Move On

So what to do after DNFing a race? Of course, move one.

Make a list of goals for the future—whether it’s a second try at the same race, a new race, PR—you name it.

The best way to do so is to choose your next target.

Although it’s easier said than done, try to move past a DNF as fast as possible rather than dwelling on things you cannot change.

Next, bring your focus to your next goal that’s challenging and exciting. This will help you get out of the funk faster.

Overall, I’d recommend setting the goal of returning to the same race next year and giving it a second attempt.

Additional resources

DNF In Racing –  The Conclusion

There you have it! If worry about not finishing your next race, then today’s post should have given you an idea or two on what to do.

The rest is just details.

Please feel free to leave your comments and questions in the section below.

In the meantime thank you for dropping by.

David D.