If you run long enough (and it really doesn’t take long at all), you’ve encountered it – the workout FAIL. Maybe it was a long run where you just didn’t have the energy. Maybe humidity wreaked havoc with a tempo or marathon pace run. Maybe a bit of illness or lack of sleep doomed your attempt at some intervals.
Just like disruptions to your training schedule can provide an opportunity for some gains, the same is true for overcoming a bad workout. The first key point to realize is that your performance at your A race is going to be dictated by your full body of work, not how you did on any one specific workout.
As a case in point, at last year’s Towpath Marathon, I was running the first mile or so with a runner who had trained with the early race leader. He told me “So and so should have a solid race and come in around 2:50 – he nailed all his interval workouts on the track”. So and so did manage to lead the race – through around 25 miles. But another runner, who had several failed workouts in the season, caught him at that point. This early leader faded to finish in eighth place with a 3:02 – not what his interval workouts had predicted.
As I was preparing Running Ahead of the Sun, I was struck by exactly how many failed tempo, interval, and marathon pace workouts punctuated last summer’s training. Some examples include:
- A completely-missed 6 mile tempo run as weather and laziness conspired to stack too many miles over 36 hours (which ended up being good endurance training anyway)
- Another 6-mile tempo run where I just didn’t have the energy after 4 miles, probably due to the humidity, so cut it short.
- A 8x600m hill workout where I just plain went out too fast and had nothing left after three repeats.
- Two long marathon pace runs (each 18 miles total, and around 10 or 14 miles of pace work included) where 2 miles at pace was all I had in me, again driven by humidity.
So how can you recover from a bad workout? It depends on the circumstances of the workout and when it goes south. First, you don’t necessarily need to salvage anything – recognize that the occasional missed workout isn’t going to derail your training. However, these workouts can be more important mentally than they are physically, so the competitive runner will want to find some way to regain confidence. Here are five ways to do so.
- Adjust your schedule when you’re not “feeling it” – the best approach is to shift things around even before you attempt the workout if your confidence in meeting the plan is low. Move it to the next day if need be, or even later in the week. Obviously you want to be careful to avoid back-to-back hard days, and you don’t want to use any little excuse to avoid doing a tough workout. But if you can proactively manage your schedule, then there’s nothing to overcome, you can still meet your full weekly plan.
This was the approach first tried in the missed 6-mile tempo above – bad weather meant I didn’t even bother starting the workout, and just pushed it to later in the week.
- Try to salvage something from the workout – if you are a little bit into the workout and determine that you’re just not going to deliver, it may be possible to adjust your plans and still gain some value. Ideally, you’d want to maintain the intent of the workout if possible – lactate threshold tempo work, VO2max gains from intervals, etc. But you could reduce the intensity or quantity, or increase the recover time, and still book some gains. In essence, you are creating a mini-workout that still provides much of the gains from the full workout.
When I failed the hill workout from above, I took a few miles to recover and then polished off 3×600 intervals with some pretty good turnover and felt mentally better, while posting some physiological gains too. Since the original plan called for 6×600 (no hills) anyway, the result was more than satisfactory.
- Set yourself up for a successful workout at the next opportunity – if it’s too late or you are too tired to salvage anything from your workout, then start shifting your focus to your next replication or increment of such a workout and do what you can to make it successful. Plan an easy day or two ahead of the workout day. Shift it to a different time of day to avoid heat or the early-morning blahs (yes, they happen). Make sure you sleep and fuel well. And then execute the workout with confidence.
This was how I bounced back from the 6-turned-4 mile tempo. The next tempo workout two weeks later called for 7 miles, and, by preparing adequately for it (and gaining from a shift in the weather), it ended up being one of the best tempo workouts I’ve ever run, obliterating any memory of the failed workout.
- Get your workout done early, when you are feeling strong – occasionally, you’ll have a day where everything is clicking, and you may find yourself running faster than planned. For example, you may be hovering near marathon-pace early in a long run. If you’re feeling strong enough, go ahead and knock off some long marathon-paced miles while you’re in the groove (or tack on another interval or tempo mile or two, during such workouts). This way, if weather, illness, or a lack of energy interfere with a future run, you’ll already have “booked” the tougher workout and can take advantage by backing off a bit.
This happened to me the week before I had an 18-miler with 14 miles at marathon pace on the schedule – I was out on a 20-mile run and found myself near marathon pace by mile 5. So I just ran the rest of the 20 at marathon pace (though it wasn’t easy!) and then, when the humidity killed my planned 18 / 14 at MP run the next weekend, I didn’t need to stress about it.
- Just accept that your body is telling you something and move on – when you design or pick a training plan, it’s difficult to know exactly how much you are capable of doing, and sometimes you overreach. Feeling too weak to execute a workout may be a sign that you are asking too much. This turns a “bad thing” into a “good thing” – you are supposed to be pushing your limits a bit during training, so fatigue means that the plan is working. That is, so long as you are willing to listen and adjust. And sometimes we just have to accept that the weather is what it is, and any mileage done in high humidity is good training, even if they aren’t as fast or easy as anticipated.
This was ultimately the case with the missed 6-mile tempo run above (as well as the one cut short). On the missed tempo, I just accepted that putting in 40 miles over 36 hours was probably more valuable in the long run than the tempo run I had to sacrifice.
A training season is long, and you will have plenty of opportunities to both succeed and fail at workouts. The manner in which you handle and recover from the tough workouts will do more to identify your race readiness than the manner in which you execute the successful ones.