6 Tips for Looking At a 'Did Not Start' (DNS) or 'Did Not Finish (DNF) in A Positive Way

Have you ever had a DNS (‘did not start’) or a DNF (‘did not finish’)?

If you have, you’ll know the psychological impact the decision can have on you.

I’ve had a very unsuccessful year in terms of running achievements.

I’ve had a couple of major DNF’s and DNS’:

  1. I failed at my attempt to run more than 800 miles in 9 days to break a world record

  2. I’ve made the decision to withdraw from my next major event - the Tooting 24 hour race, which was happening this weekend - because of injury

So I’ve had to get over these hurdles physically and mentally.

They’re some of the toughest decisions that I’ve made in my running career.

And it’s always one of the toughest conversation that I have with the athletes that I coach.

Whether you have or haven’t experienced a DNS or a DNF, this article will be useful for you.

Sports psychologist Evie Serventi gives advice on how to look at a DNS or a DNF in a positive way.

It includes 6 very specific tips for getting over them.

As well as being a sports psychologist, Evie is also a competitive triathlete, runner and swimmer.

She competed in the triathlon world championships on the Gold Coast, Australia in September, 2018.

You can get in touch with Evie at sportpsych@evieserventi.com.

Or you can follow her on EvieServenti.com, Twitter (@HotOffThePage) and Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/evie.serventi).


Note - This article was originally published on Precision Hydration’s blog.

Spend Less Time Worrying About Your Training and More Time Celebrating Your Success

Take a look at my coaching page to find out how I can help you to achieve your goals.

I’ve coached many runners and triathletes, just like you, to get fitter and faster.

And I’ve done all the hard work of learning various training techniques, including testing them on myself.

That means that:

  • You don’t have to spend lots of time researching training plans and worrying about whether a technique will work or not.

  • You can spend more time on getting fitter and faster.

  • You can spend more time celebrating your successes!

And because I’m still an active competitor, I’m always testing new things to improve my own performance. Which I pass directly on to you.

Take a look at my coaching page to find out how I could help you achieve your goals.

It’s As Much To Do With Your Mind As the Body

Knowing when to quit a race or cancel before you reach the start line is tough.

Yet it’s a skill that reinforces your strengths as an athlete.

It’s about level-headed risk management and is as much to do with your mind, as it is your body...


Aside from the obvious glitches such as major injury or illness, making the decision to DNS or DNF comes down to having the right resources and support network, being self-aware and maintaining a healthy perspective.

It could be due to an injury or niggle that flares up on the day, a lack of fitness, underestimating the conditions, dehydration, or you simply aren’t feeling ‘right’.

The key point is to make a clinical and calculated decision.

Rational decisions are driven by self-awareness.

This means being task-focused and in the present, rather than worrying about the past or future.

This ‘inward’ approach helps you stay honest and to put focus on what’s right for you.

Rather than spending valuable energy on worrying about what others think (more on that later).

The key is to make a clinical and calculated decision

Get to Grips With Your Motivation

Most athletes have clear goals for each race and a variety of reasons ‘why’ they’re taking part in them.

These could include:

  • Ticking off a training race

  • Achieving a specific performance goal

  • Honouring a loved one

  • Having fun

  • Wanting to qualify for something or climb up the rankings

Expectations and perceived obligations can make the decision to DNS or DNF difficult.

Yet it’s important to control your own destiny.

Self-perceived internal pressure is often turned into external pressure.

Athletes sometimes start to think more about what others think they should do in a race. Rather than what they themselves actually want to do. This only adds agony to the decision.

Perceived (and real) external pressure is common. It’s often fuelled by social media, as we tell the world what we're doing.

While voicing your goals and race plans can be motivating and keep you honest, it’s important to be very clear about ‘why’ you're doing a race.

It’s important to control your own destiny

Re-visit your ‘why’ regularly.

Do this mentally, and also write it down.

Especially if you're training for an event that is a long time away.

Identifying what characterises your motivation can help you keep a healthy perspective.

It can help you avoid inner conflict (a useful skill, when faced with having to decide whether to DNS or DNF) and can help reinforce your values.

Note from James - This article explains the importance of finding your ‘why’ for training and racing. And it gives you a simple 60-second exercise to help you find yours.

Avoid Self-Flagellation

Having clear goals can also help mitigate conflict when it comes to deciding to DNS or DNF. 

Athletes are often self-critical and can fail to move on because they get stuck on whether it was right to DNS or DNF.

This is partly due to being worried about the implications.

  • ‘What will others think?’

  • ‘Has my coach lost confidence in me?’

  • ‘What do the rest of the team think?’

  • ‘Do my crew believe in me?’

  • ‘Do I believe in myself?’

Making a rational decision at the time, and accepting it, means you’ll feel satisfied with having made the right decision for yourself.

A valuable next step is to learn from what happened and advance towards your goal. 

In my experience of talking with top coaches of Kenyan runners, I’m told one of their greatest strengths is their acceptance.

They don’t let one race affect their whole season.

They will often say ‘today was not my day’, learn from it and move on.

The top Kenyan runners don’t let one race affect their whole season

Amongst almost all of the athletes I work with, over analysing a bad performance is common.

This unhelpful habit can be distracting and draining mentally, emotionally and physically.

Finally, it’s key to have the right support around you.

If you don’t have a coach, find a mentor who understands you as a personnot just an athlete.

And they should be clear about your values, your goals and who inspires you.

Someone you respect and whose opinion and guidance, you trust.

Note from James - If you’re looking for a coach to help you improve your performance, take a look at the coaching plans I offer

6 Tips on Using a DNS or DNF to Your Advantage

1) Go With Your Gut

In training, minimise gastrointestinal upsets by experimenting with what you can and can’t digest and drink - especially for endurance events.

Practise fuelling and hydrating in different weather conditions, times of the day (if your race involves night running or is multi-stage) and at various distances.

Be precise with your fuelling practice in training, so that it’s compatible with race day.

Nausea/ vomiting accounted for 23% of ultra-maraton DNF’s
— velopress.com/top-reasons-ultrarunners-dnf

In other words, if you are training for a 50 mile event, practice fuelling in your longest training run. Not on your shorter runs.

If doing a long distance triathlon, practice on the bike and run.

Note from James - This one is a really simple one, but is often overlooked by athletes. Incorrect fuelling strategies has been shown to be the BIGGEST reason ultra-runners have to withdraw from a race.

2) Use If-Then Strategies

Much of the anxiety around deciding whether to DNS or DNF comes down to ‘unfamiliar territory’.

For example, not having strategies in place if things go wrong (which sometimes, inevitably, they do!).

To avoid agonising over whether to DNS in the build up to a race, create useful if-then strategies early on in your training schedule.

For example

“If I get sick and fall behind a week, then I’ll…

  • … Talk it through with my coach”

  • … Make sure I build back up slowly and acknowledge my training so far”

  • … Focus more on my nutrition and building my immunity”

If-then strategies on race day could include

“If it’s hotter than expected, I’ll…

  • … Re-assess my goals”

  • … Slow my pace slightly”

  • … Adjust my hydration strategy”

Creating ‘if-then’ strategies helps you prepare cognitively.

This encourages rational decision-making and minimises anxiety.

(Another) Note from James! - After working with Evie for a long time, I’ve used ‘if/ then’ strategies a lot. I’ve found them one of the simplest and most effective strategies. And have passed this technique on to the athletes that I coach.

3) Use Visualisation

Visualisation can be an effective preparation tool for avoiding a DNF.

Run through the event in your mind in training. See yourself in the race at different stages and experiencing different situations.

These can be positive (see yourself smiling, hearing people cheer as you pass, etc) and negative (see yourself dropping your drink bottle, feeling fatigued, etc).

The more you can replicate race scenarios and experiences in your mind before the event, the calmer you’ll feel on the day.

You’ll also feel confident that you can cope with whatever comes your way.

Note from James - One of my favourite visualisation techniques is to get a picture of the finish line of a race. You can usually get these on the race website or Google Maps.

4) Create A Checklist

If considering a DNS or DNF, ask yourself:

  • Am I doing this race because I want to?

  • Do I really think I can do the race?

  • Is my injury race-limiting, or is it race-ending?

  • Can I run through the niggle in training?

  • Is my confidence where it should be?

  • Can I change my target of a PB/ good performance to simply finishing/ enjoying the event?

  • Can I change my race strategy and run with a friend rather than race?

5) Focus on the Positives

Once you're through the initial disappointment of a DNS or DNF, move on and avoid focusing on a single outcome. For example, a bad race.

Think constructively and move the goal posts.

Ask yourself ‘what have I achieved along the way?’

For example, a 100-miler DNF could mean you have achieved a good marathon, then 30 miler, then 50 miler.

Okay, so you haven’t achieved a 100-miler, but you have achieved a lot along the way.

What have I achieved along the way?

Focus on what’s been achieved, not on what’s missing.

Celebrate every achievement so you build a healthy perspective and continue to nurture your motivation.

Many athletes will casually skim over a good performance or race.

Yet if you have a bad race, it can be referred to for the rest of your life.

6) Re-Build Your Confidence

If you’re hit hard by a DNS or DNF, get back into basic training and re-start the journey.

Start from scratch and enter a few shorter races, building up to your goal race.

Athletes with a growth mindset ask “What am I going to do the make sure this doesn’t happen again?” 

And I’m going to say it - as cringe worthy as it may sound - confident athletes learn much more from failure than they do from success.

What am I going to do the make sure this doesn’t happen again?

Have You Ever Had A DNS or DNF? And How Have You Bounced Back?

Let me know in the comments at the bottom of this blog, on the Contact Page or on social media below. 

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