Dealing with ‘what’s next’ as an athlete

This could also be called where my head is at right now. Here’s the thing though now I’ve been here many times before. I want this to be generally helpful to everyone but I will be using my experiences as guide posts along the way. Basically it outlines a process of deciding what direction to head in next year. You want to allow some space to make the right choice and be open to all the possibilities in the mean time. It might also be helpful to recognize if you have a particular cycle that you fall into between seasons. But in general it’s most important to realize that you don’t have to have a firm decision right away. If you follow these tips you’ll have the best chance of making a decision about what’s next that really is best for you.

Hold off thoughts of never again

Here’s the thing when I started out doing endurance events I always swore in training and definitely during the race I outright swore I was never doing this again. It was helpful in the moment because I would say things to myself like “since you’re only doing this once you might as well give it your all.” In those moments let me tell you I believed it! Usually I didn’t have these same thoughts in training but some athletes do. This year while marathon training it was like all the stars aligned to make it happen and relatively easy for me. Mostly due to my employee wanting more hours. While I’m not saying I wouldn’t do it all again I have a hard time believing that my life will line up like that ever again.

Here’s the thing though it’s not going to be until after, maybe even long after your race that you’ll really know what you want for the future. Right after you’ll think that was so hard, I was so busy and maybe even I really dropped the ball during that time. With a bit of space you’ll find that it just doesn’t seem that bad. You also need some time to realize just how awesome you accomplishment is. In other words before you make a decision you need to wait for the hard work to prove to you it was a great idea after all.

Look back on the season that was

Once a month or two has passed you’ll actually have a better idea of what you want your season to look like than the moment after you get your medal. But we all know it’s about a lot more than just the race. How was your training? How was your social life? Do you want to travel far and wide this year? For me this year I have to ask myself “how likely is it that your work will be as easy to schedule around training as it was this year”? Now a word of caution if this year was the first year you’ve done something big well last year seems like a bigger deal than it really was in your life. Not that it’s not a big deal, it is, but if you were to do the exact same thing a second time it would be so, so much easier on you physically and mentally under the same outside conditions. 

More of the same or something new

Perhaps the easiest place to start in deciding whether you want a change or not. More often than not in some ways whatever you choose will be the same on some level. I mean most people are not running a marathon one year and on the olympic bobsled team the next. Even then I think the bobsledders run at the start. So if you’re a runner you’ll probably still be doing some running. But if you’ve done a marathon this year maybe you want to focus on the 5k next year. If last year was your first half marathon perhaps you might like to try a triathlon next year. Maybe next year is the year you’re going to get into trail running or finally go for that long slower ultra. 

On the other hand you might too decide that you want to do the exact same thing again next year. It doesn’t mean you failed this year. You could decide to do the exact same thing for a number of reasons. You might just feel like you’re not quite ready to tackle the next distance on your endurance journey. I know I held at the half marathon for three years (plus covid) before tackling the marathon. For any number of reasons you might also feel like you have more to give to that particular event. It might be that you skipped some time in training, that you didn’t feel your best on race day or you had an injury along the way and you might be totally ready to sign up for the exact same thing.

Let your plan evolve over time

Sometimes we make a plan for next season, we might even share it with others and then things change. We all have a tendency to say never again right after the race but over time we long for the training and racing experience again. After some time passes you might think ‘yeah, I’m up for that again’ or ‘last year was actually crazy.’ So I’m really saying is don’t let your initial reaction lock you into what you want to sign up for this year. The dead of winter tends to make us romantic and wishful about getting back out there come spring. But sometimes things happen between race seasons where your initial big plan just has to be scaled back. Sometimes I’ve known exactly what I wanted to do next year and sometimes not so much at the end of a race season. Sometimes I did it the next year and sometimes not. Now, even if I have a pretty good idea what I want to do next year in September I take the whole winter to let the idea marinate. In fact It’s a good idea to be open to possibilities right up until you need to start base building for next season.

What’s next in the time of Covid

This may age well or not so much, time will tell. For now I would hold off on planning on doing any race where expensive travel is a necessity. Just say I wanted to do an Ironman or half ironman next I would have to travel to Quebec or Alberta. I would want to be there a couple of days before and at least leave the next day and I would want my husband to come with me. They are both held in expensive resort towns with costly accommodations and high transport costs to and from the airport. I would estimate that would cost well over $3000 by the time those costs were covered. Plus the missed work in training. Even if I was cool with that all of it might be for nothing if pandemic conditions change and it really can’t be done virtually. How heartbreaking would that be?

So for now I would recommend putting those sorts of plans off for at least another year unless you are mentally and financially prepared to deal with that. But here’s the good news travel restrictions are way less tight now, local (and semi-local) races are back on and now virtual races are more established than ever before. If I decided instead to do my first in person marathon next year close to home and I had to do another virtually instead it wouldn’t be the same heart ache. So… I guess what I’m saying is don’t plan to do anything you can’t deal with being canceled just yet.

I think most of us have reached the point in the year when we start thinking more about the season that will be rather than the season that was. There really isn’t any reason to have a firm plan or really any plan at all it this point. Do some thinking, give it some time and by the time it starts to warm up again you’ll know what’s right for you. How do you decide on what challenge to tackle next? Do you always swear never again and then do it again any way? Leave it in the comments below!

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