When a Workout Doesn't Work Out

>> Sunday, May 23, 2010


I had the best intentions today when I set out on my weekly long run. I planned to complete a nice, steady 13-miler in preparation for the Lake Placid Half Marathon in a few weeks. Now, I woke up not exactly feeling like running -- for a variety of reasons, most of all my allergies are wicked awful today -- but I ate my usual pre-run bagel and slugged some coconut water anyway . . . and then slipped out into the humid early morning air.

A half mile into my run, I just wasn't feeling it. My legs were heavy from yesterday's random speed workout with Stephen (a quick 6-miler with 4x400s smack in the middle at 6:40 pace). The temps are now reaching a summer-like heatwave, complete with thick humidity. Mixed with all the grass pollen from freshly-cut lawns, my breathing (thanks to the generous genetic gift of awful season allergies) was off. Worst of all, I've been eating so poorly, I had what felt like no gas in my tank.

Yuck. I considered turning around right then and there. Calling it a day. But I knew if I did that, the rest of my weekend would be completely ruined. I'm sure many of you know what I'm talking about. The skipped workout guilt. Whether or not you've experienced it -- and I'm sure most have -- even if you're cool with taking days easy, it can creep up on you. But I fought back. I got in a sweat. And I'm sure I'll be back to normal in no time.

Here's how:


Admit to yourself that you're not feeling, well, yourself. When I was less experienced, I'd feel horrible during a particular workout and push myself to finish anyway. As a result, this pushing created a bad association for me: workout and work. I like to think of my runs as recreation. As fun. Yes, some of them are flippin' hard, but it's the kind of "work" that gives me reward and a sense of accomplishment at the end, not pain and anguish.

There's a huge difference.

You could be getting sick. You could be tired from other non-workout-related activities (work, school, social stuff, etc.). If you're like me, maybe you've not been eating the best diet to fuel your activity. Also like me, you may be burned out from a season of too many miles or too much racing. You could just be bored. Regardless, there are a number of reasons why you may want to pause a bit on the minutes/distance/intensity you have marked on your calendar. And you need to let yourself know that it's OK.

If you're finding that you don't feel yourself routinely, you may need to take a step back and see if there are other, more serious reasons. Maybe you're trying to do too much for your fitness level. Maybe those other life circumstances need to take a front seat. Whatever the case may be, listen to how you're feeling.


Evaluate this particular workout in the context of your whole program. Take some time to look deep within yourself. Really! I mean, sometimes I feel like crap at the start of a 3-miler "easy" run. If so, I sometimes decide to just skip it all together and start fresh the next day. Easy runs are for recovery -- so if you don't feel you can recover, why force yourself? If you completely have maxed yourself out on a particular workout before them, I feel it's OK to occasionally give yourself an additional day of rest.

On the other hand, if your workout is, say, a long run or tempo run (or if you have a race coming up). If it's a "quality" workout, in other words, you might not want to turn around and head home just yet. Evaluate the importance of a particular workout by deeming it a recovery versus quality one. If your answer is quality see the next step.


Compromise. And this is exactly what I did today. I "needed" to run 13 miles today. But that was actually a lie. Today should have been a step-back week for me. My mileage should have been marked more around 10 miles. I told myself that I was being too hard on my body and that step-back weeks are important for a reason: rest. But, I knew I couldn't do a full 10-miler today. My run with Stephen was far too difficult. And I realize I'm letting the accomplishments of others (super long distance races, etc. every week or two weeks -- which I simply can't manage with my schedule) get to me.

When I need to compromise. When I realize that a workout just isn't going to, well, work out, I usually cut my "necessary" mileage in half. Today, I decided that meant I'd do 6 miles. I kept my pace relatively close to my long run pace (so I didn't do a fast, more demanding run), and I completed the six miles. Here's the thing, though: It wasn't easy. I knew, however, I didn't get a solid workout in for the day, I'd go crazy.

Remember how I said it wasn't easy. It was actually so very difficult because not only was my body not feeling it, but my mind also wasn't giving me a break. There was many times I wanted to stop and turn around. This is where -- even though I'm all for listening to my body -- I knew I needed to step up a bit. Going TOO easy on yourself is almost as bad as going too hard. You need to strike a balance -- so, unless you are sick or should completely keep you off your feet (injury), breaking through the mental barrier is required. Your mind will likely yell at you. Make you feel bad because you couldn't do what you had planned that day.

The best part of breaking through that mental barrier is that sometimes (definitely not all times), you'll be able to do your originally scheduled run/etc. It's happened to me . . . and it will certainly happen to you. If not, though, don't fret.


Supplement. Here's the key to quieting your mind if it's still yelling at you. Do your compromise workout. But then later in the day, do something else active -- not necessarily the same activity you do all the time (so, if you run . . . don't always try to head out on another run). For example, I'm planning to either take a light bike ride or walk around the neighborhood later today -- maybe do some yoga. I'm not going to plop myself on the couch like I often do on Sunday afternoons after long runs because I simply have too much energy, just not for running. My mind is also put more at ease when I tell myself that I'll be moving around in another way later today.

And if you're sick or injured, you can find other ways to supplement your activity. Like reading Runner's World. Cooking super healthy foods. Looking up training plans that might better work for you (if you're totally burned out). You may also want to spend some time thinking about why you had a bad day. Were the reasons preventable (like eating a poor diet, being dehydrated, or being sleep deprived)? Or not (like having a cold, working toward a deadline at your job, or having a stress fracture)?


In the end, you'll feel awesome after so many of your "quality" workouts, so try to remember them. And don't let a few bad days get you down. Now, if you'll excuse me . . . I'm going to go take some of my own advice and make a healthy lunch. Happy Sunday!

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