Ultra Fail: What to do when your race ends in a DNF

So you arrived at UTA with all the right intentions but it just didn’t go your way on the day. The dreaded DNF!
Let’s look at each of the scenarios and figure out how we can help you grow from the experience.


The most common reason behind the dreaded DNF in ultras is gut issues.

Gut issues in ultras can be a bit of a mystery to the runner. This is because there are a number of causative factors and it’s always hard to know which factor was responsible for your trouble. There can be factors relating to adequate food intake (or lack thereof) and there’s a link between upset tummies and over-exertion – running harder than your training has allowed.

The most important thing is to document your intake during the race, hour by hour, in as much detail as you can recall. This will be vital in helping a qualified Sports Dietitian to identify the most likely culprit and to work out the best solution. Once you get back into some reasonable training volume, you can test different approaches to nutrition and begin to figure out which approach/es best serve your needs.

The downside here is that it’s difficult, almost impossible, to test any fuelling for ultras during shorter training runs (anything less than 4 hours). Your best chance to test your new approach in full, for better or for worse, is during your next ultra.


If your unplanned early exit from UTA related to muscle fatigue, cramping or just losing your drive, you need to examine your strength training and the amount of vertical mileage in your program.

Print out your training logs in the 3 months leading up to the race. Take a look at the amount of vertical per week, look at the amount of continuous vertical per interval (that is the longest climb in your training runs) and write in any strength sessions.

Ideally you’ll see a balance of a large amount of weekly vertical distance, the bulk of which should have come from long climbs of over 5 minutes per ascent. If your weekly vertical was down overall or if you don’t have long climbs available to you, this is where your strength training needed to fill the gaps.

There’s no need to dwell too much on any missing volume in your program. But it does help to start to map out your targets for the months leading up to your next ultra, including any additional strengths sessions or hill sessions required. Otherwise we tend to fall back into the same rhythm with our training program and the cycle repeats.


The last aspect to examine is your race pacing.

This is a huge reason behind gut issues, cramping and complete fatigue. The downside here is that it takes years of experience to refine your pacing strategy. On the upside, a DNF is a great teacher – you just need to be a fast learner. Take a look at your pacing from the UTA race timings and copy down the pacing of a few other runners who were alongside you at the last point in the race before you pulled the pin. Examine where those same people were at earlier stages in the race and how that matches to your pacing.

It’s always easier in hindsight to say you should have gone slower at the start. Most of us know we need to slow down in the early stages, it’s just very difficult to pick what pace is comfortable slow and what’s just lazy slow. For next year’s UTA you can documents your ideal time brackets for each checkpoint (these are times that you don’t want to arrive earlier or later than).

The key here is to practice this pacing over similar terrain in your training. You’ll get a better feel for how slow your pacing needs to be. Obviously there’s other factors affecting you on race day – game day adrenaline, moving with a pack of runners and race competitiveness – but it’s reassuring to feel how easy and efficient you can work without worrying about going too slow.


Now here’s your plan of action so you can stay focused and avoid DNF depression.

Step 1 – find your next race. Nothing too soon, give yourself enough time for your legs to recover so that your DNF frustration doesn’t become injury frustration.

Step 2 – develop a plan to rectify the above points and refine your approach for the next race.

Step 3 – start to write down your goals, your plan AND your current state of mind. You don’t want to dwell on your DNF but you do want to use it as the best motivation for your future endeavours. I’ve had three DNFs in my running journey and I like to remember them during my training and racing as the fuel to drive me.

Written by

Pete Colagiuri
Sports Physiotherapist

Pete has over 20 years experience as a Physiotherapist and specialises in running biomechanics and complex injuries. He believes that you must identify and fix the underlying cause of an injury, to recover faster, prevent recurrences and improve performance.

Pete Colagiuri - Sports Physio