In training as in life, sometimes discretion is the better part of valor.
Not every workout goes well. Your most challenging high-intensity runs are especially likely to be harder than expected, because they challenge your performance limits and thus require a level of mental and physical readiness that you don’t have every day. You can limit the number of bad workouts you experience by developing a training routine that balances training stress and relative rest in a way that works for you. But you will still have the occasional bad day.
How should you respond when you start a planned hard workout only to discover that you feel lousy and are perhaps unable to meet your performance goals for the session? Should you grind it out? Go easy instead? Just go home? The answer to all of these questions is yes. In other words, you have to treat each case independently and base your decision on the specific nature and degree of your bad day.
As a general rule, you should try to complete the workout as planned, but this is not always wise or even possible. When this is the case, there are four other options to consider. Let’s take a quick look at the five ways to respond to a bad training day.
Option #1: Grint It Out
If, after completing your warmup and starting the main portion of your workout, you discover that you feel “flat” but no worse, it is probably best to complete the workout as planned. Although it will be a little unpleasant and you might not hit your target pace or power numbers for the session, you will still get a good training stimulus. Also, I find that when I go ahead and grind through a workout that I was tempted to abandon, I feel really good about myself afterward and my next key workout is always much better.
Option #2: Ignore Your Watch
Some days your body just cannot perform at the same level you know it could on just about any other day. There’s nothing particularly wrong; you just lack the usual snap in your legs. It can be frustrating to perform key workouts in this condition and see pace or heart-rate numbers that are far off your targets. So why not just ignore the numbers and complete the planned workout by effort instead? You will get a stronger training effect than you would get from abandoning the workout, but without the frustration of measuring your subpar performance. Choose this option if, after warming up and beginning the main portion of your workout, you feel overwhelmed by the planned pace/heart rate but still able to do the workout if you just dial back the throttle a bit.
Option #3: Cut It Short
Suppose you warm up for a high-intensity workout and feel so flat that you can’t even face the planned session, yet you know that you will feel even worse mentally if you simply stop and go home. On these occasions, consider replacing your planned workout with a few very short, very high-intensity intervals. For example, replace a set of 5 x 3:00 intervals at VO2max intensity with 8 x 30-second relaxed sprints (95% of full speed). The reason this works is that fatigue tends to be compartmentalized within energy systems, and often fatigue that prevents you from performing well aerobically does not prevent you from performing well anaerobically. This phenomenon offers another possibility to salvage some kind of training stimulus and prevent a blow to your confidence even on those days when your body is less capable than expected.
Option #4: Go Easy
While fatigue is sometimes specific to the aerobic system, other times it is generalized, taking option three off the table. In these instances, your best choice is to perform a relatively short, low-intensity recovery workout. As you gain experience in training you will learn the difference between how your body feels when it is not ready for high-intensity aerobic training but still able to handle a few sprints and when it is not ready for any high-intensity training. Until you have that experience, default to option three on days when you feel flat, yet not so bad that taking the day off seems like the most sensible option. On some of these occasions you will discover that even your warmup don’t go well. Connecting this experience with how your body felt before you tried the workout will enable you to decide when you just need to go easy in future workouts.
Option #5: Go Home
On days when you feel lousy even at warmup intensity, or your muscles are extremely sore from previous training, or you feel the pain of an incipient injury somewhere in your body, let distrcretion be the better part of valor and take the day off. Know that it is the right decision and don’t let that paranoid inner voice tell you that you will lose fitness irretrievably unless you do some kind of workout. Live to fight another day!