Each run, each workout, and each race should be considered a learning opportunity. You should never walk away from a hard run without having learned something about yourself. You will never improve if you do not learn from your experiences.
I'm going to focus on the hard workouts and races because recovery runs should be just for fun and relaxation. The recovery runs are actually when I do most of my reflecting and learning.
During a hard workout or race you need to be insanely attune to your body. You need to make note of step. There should never be a part of a race that you don't remember. You cannot tune out! You need to be asking yourself how you feel, how do your legs feel? How about your arms? How is your breathing? Is your form good? Are you catching up to the person in front of you? Is your pace staying consistent? Is it time to pick up the pace a little bit? These questions should be constantly running through your mind. When people ask me what I think about when I'm running, I reply "Running!" (note: this does not include recovery runs). Store the thoughts of each moment of the race/workout so you can go back to them later. Often times my "memory" of a certain part of the race is a snapshot more than a paragraph. Whatever is best for you.
After the race or workout give yourself a little bit to calm down and let your mind rest. I don't reflect on my workouts/races for a few hours or sometimes not even until the next day. Things oftentimes make more sense after you've let it settle. Especially if it was an emotional or frustrating practice. Reflecting while you are in an emotional state of mind is rarely effective, trust me.
The times I do my best reflecting are either on my cool down (unless it was emotional), on a distance run, or at home later that night. I like talking through my race or workout with either a teammate, my husband, or my coach. It is good to say things out loud because it helps you realize certain things more. I don't know why, but saying something out loud makes it much more real than just saying it in your head. My husband was really helpful today. He asked me all the right questions. How did you feel? Was your body tired? Were you strong mentally? Why do you think you don't have speed right now? These are the questions you should ask yourself. And the ultimate question after you have analyzed every detail should be "What did I learn from my race/workout today?"
I was really grateful for a certain teammate of mine that I ran with on Saturday. She asked me, "So what did you learn from our race this weekend?" I had sort of analyzed my race and thought about it a little bit, what I liked and didn't like, but I had not asked myself what exactly I learned. This exact question puts a whole new perspective on a race. It helps you look forward to the next time you will race, knowing what you do now so that you can do it better next time.
Learning from each workout and especially from each race will make you a strong, experienced runner. To really succeed as a runner you have to develop yourself. You don't think Emil Zatopek won 3 gold medals at one Olympics just by going out and saying "That was a cool race. Maybe I'll try it again".
Now I want to caution you on this idea of reflection. There is a difference between reflection and dwelling. DO NOT DWELL ON THE PAST. I have said it before, but one of my coaches taught me to "beat yourself up for a minute. And when 60 seconds is done, move on and look forward". This is imperative. You cannot beat yourself up over a bad workout or a bad race. The whole point of this reflection concept is to learn. And you will not learn if you are having a pity party.
- "What has passed is already finished with.
What I find more interesting is what is still to come."
- Emil Zatopek