Not many sports make people suffer like running does! If you’ve done any kind of competitive running, chances are you’ve had to suffer through nausea, cramping, pain – or just feeling crummy!
On occasion, these feelings affect us so badly that we may not be able to finish a race. If this happens to you, it’s important to know that it’s nothing to be ashamed of. It might even be considered something like an initiation into becoming a runner!
But when should you DNF your running race and when should you push through and cross that finish line?
There’s more to it than simple willpower. We’ll discuss some common reasons for DNF and how to know when to stop and when to keep going.
What Does DNF Mean?
DNF stands for “Did Not Finish.” It’s just as it sounds – it means you started a race but didn’t cross the finish line.
In some cases, you may actually finish the race but fall outside of the cut-off times and be classified as DNF. Many races will ask you to stop if the cut-off time has passed.
Some runners self-enforce a DNF if they realize that they’ve missed their target time. This may sound like a cop-out but it can be a strategic move. If you’re running another race fairly shortly after and you’d prefer to save your strength, you can choose to DNF.
This is obviously a better idea if you have a specific goal in mind and you’re using your runs to hit very particular target times.
But, as you may realize, most DNFs happen due to some kind of unfortunate circumstance. We’ll discuss the most common reasons below!
Possible Reasons for DNF
DNFs can happen for just about any reason you can think of. But some are definitely more common than others. Here are some of the most common reasons for DNFs.
Not all of these occurrences will automatically lead to a DNF. If you experience one of them, you’ll need to assess how you feel and if you can carry on safely, or if it would benefit you more to stop so you can recover before running again.
If you’re running for a long period of time, it can be easy to zone out and fall into an almost hypnotic state. This is normal and can even benefit you mentally, helping to clear the mind and alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression.
But, it can also sometimes lead to accidents because you’re a little zoned out from your surroundings! If you aren’t paying subtle, peripheral attention to what’s happening around you, you could be at risk of tripping over things or bumping into things.
Tripping over your own shoelaces, rocks, steps, or other obstacles can happen at any point. There’s also a danger of stepping into potholes or dips in the terrain.
If you’re running in a crowded area, unexpected movement by other people can cause accidents. During races, the crowd usually disperses fairly soon after the start, but accidental encounters with other runners or even unruly members of the crowd can lead to accidents.
It’s also important to note that the risk of accidents is increased if you’re listening to music or podcasts, especially with earphones that are noise-canceling! Choose something like bone conduction headphones for safety.
Injuries happen in the blink of an eye. Some of the most common spontaneous injuries during races include pulled hamstrings, twisted or sprained ankles, and calf pulls or tears.
Leg injuries are the most often experienced during races. To reduce your chances of being injured, make sure to warm up properly before starting, and get your form right!
Spontaneous occurrences during the race can lead to injury. For example, stepping on a large stone can cause you to turn your ankle over.
Back, neck, and shoulder pain is also a common race-ruining culprit. If you suffer from chronic back problems, it’s even more important to warm these muscles up effectively before you set off on your race.
Pushing through these problems can often end worse. Sometimes, a quick foam roller session can ease up the muscle enough to keep running. But if it happens again in the same race, a DNF may be the better choice.
This is otherwise known as hitting the wall, running out of steam, or bonking! If you haven’t eaten enough before the race and you don’t have easy-access carbs on hand, your body may just run out of energy halfway through.
This can manifest in symptoms such as nausea, stomach cramping, extreme weakness, fatigue, and lightheadedness.
If you haven’t fueled up adequately for your race, your body will have to dig into its own reserves during the race. This may sound great for fat-burning purposes, but it can take an unexpectedly hard toll on the body.
It’s advisable to always carry sports drinks, energy gels or chews, or even an energy bar with you for fueling up on the go.
Dehydration is a huge and underestimated factor. No matter what the weather’s like on race day, when you’re running you will sweat. Sweating means losing fluid.
If you aren’t replenishing your fluid very regularly, you can very quickly lose 10 to 15% of your total body water. Water is an essential part of cell life.
Reducing the amount of water in the body means the cells can’t function as they normally would. This kind of change in the body’s state is serious!
Symptoms include headaches or “fuzzy head”, fatigue, dizziness or lightheadedness, weakness, and dry mouth.
When you’re feeling these things, pushing through the race can be hellish. If you begin to feel even a hint of these things, increasing your water intake should be your first step.
But you should also be drinking a sports drink that replaces electrolytes in your body.
From there, you can monitor how you feel. If you catch it early, you may be able to rehydrate sufficiently and keep going. If not, a DNF may be a safer option.
Missing Cut-Off or Targeted Time
We mentioned this briefly above. If you realize that the clock is ticking and you’re not going to finish within your goal time, you can choose to DNF if you don’t want a bad time on your record.
It can also help you save your legs for another race by not completely fatiguing your muscles and giving you more time to recover.
What equipment could possibly cause issues? Well, your shoes are your biggest bit of equipment. If you’re wearing the wrong type of shoes for your feet, you may end up experiencing pain, chafing, or blisters that can cause enough agony to end your race early.
But shoes aren’t the only thing that can cause these issues! Wearing a new shirt made from a different material than you’re used to can lead to agonizing nipple chafing. Nobody wants to have to DNF because of a nipple injury!
We recommend not wearing new clothing or shoes in races if you haven’t logged a considerable amount of training miles in them first.
Perhaps you’re extra sensitive to the cold, or you suffer in heat over 85℉. You can’t control the weather, and if it’s beginning to affect you mid-race, you may feel that a DNF is a better choice than suffering through it.
In Ultras, the Chair
Ultramarathons often provide chairs at aid stations for participants to take a quick break. But once your butt is in that chair, it can be hard to get up and go with the same level of motivation again!
Sometimes this is a physical thing, where your muscles have just relaxed to the point where it’s hard to get them going again.
Sometimes it’s a mental thing, where you just aren’t looking forward to the next leg and it becomes extra difficult to get your body to do its thing.
If you aren’t mentally tough, it can be easy to give up halfway through your race. Preparation is key!
Planning for your run, including nutrition and hydration, can help you to push through, pace yourself, and monitor yourself as you run. Check the course layout before you run so you’re not taken by surprise by anything.
Other ways you can prepare mentally are meditation and visualization (visualize running the course), carbo-loading, or something as simple as having a chat with a friend who can motivate you.
Once you have a plan, stick to it! If you deviate from your plan on race day, it’s a recipe for disaster. If you’ve been training in a specific way for an extended period of time, trying something new on race day can backfire and lead to a DNF.
Reasons of Self-Preservation
Occasionally, you may be in the middle of a race and get the overwhelming feeling that you should end it now. For most of us, it’s tempting to just shake it off and keep going.
But if the feeling sticks around, it could be your body’s way of telling you that carrying on may lead to injury or other problems.
Remember, there’s no need to explain every one of your feelings to others. If your friends, family, or running buddies don’t understand your reasons and aren’t supportive, it may be time to find new supporters!
Key Points to Remember if You Do Decide to Drop at Your Next Event
It’s totally okay to DNF, for whatever reason you need to. If anyone tells you it’s not, find new people to hang out with!
If you do find yourself DNFing at your next event, here are some important things you should keep in mind.
You Aren’t Alone
When you’re feeling too bad to keep running and you’re watching other runners speed past you, it can be easy to feel like you’re very alone. It’s a lonely and low feeling.
Remember, you’re by no means the only person to ever be in this position! Even the best runners have had DNFs, most likely multiple times in their careers.
Most of the runners passing you during the race have been in the same position! If they haven’t yet, they will be. It’s akin to an initiation rite for runners, and certainly nothing to be ashamed of.
Know that you’re doing this for a good reason. You’re listening to your body and making a decision to benefit your body. That takes a whole lot of mental strength!
Choosing to DNF is not a weakness. Sure, if you trip over your shoelace, skin your knee, and DNF in a huff, it may not be the best choice!
But if you’re having painful, debilitating physical symptoms, have injured yourself, or are seriously struggling with your mental game, DNF may be the best decision you can make.
Remember, you don’t have to answer to anyone else. Only you know how you’re feeling at that moment. Forgive yourself for your DNF. It’s normal, natural, and you may even have saved yourself from a worse outcome.
It’s natural to be emotional after a DNF. You may be feeling disappointed, sad, angry at yourself, or frustrated. Let it out!
Release your feelings in a healthy way. If you need to cry, then cry! Yell into a pillow, punch your pillow, or spend a morning in bed.
If activity helps, hit the punching bag, go to the gym, or go for a long run.
Get Back on the Horse
The best way to avoid dwelling on the past is to focus on the future! Schedule a new race, begin training for something else, or try a new form of cross-training. Setting new goals will help you to focus your energy on something constructive.
Make a List of the Things That Went Wrong
This is a practical way to learn from your DNF and prepare better for your next race. If you have a running journal, jot down any feelings, symptoms, or occurrences that happened during your race. This will help you to avoid running into the same issues in the next race.
Don’t forget the reason you got into running in the first place! Above all, you should enjoy yourself when you’re out on the road or trail.
One race should not break your love for the sport. Work your way through it, and then remember why you love it and move forward with confidence!