How to Salvage a Bad Workout

Friday, April 29, 2016 | By Jen Mathe
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How to Salvage a Bad Workout

Whether you are not able to hit your paces, you have stomach distress and have to make unexpected bathroom stops, or the air is heavy with smoke from a massive forest fire, there are many reasons for a workout not to go as planned. Ideally, in situations like these, you can consult your coach for feedback on how to proceed, but that’s not always possible. Maybe you don’t have a coach or your coach is not readily available at that exact moment. What do you do?

No Failed Workouts

First off, I don’t believe there is any such thing as a failed workout. Your session may not go as you expected, but there is always something to be learned from these situations if you are willing to listen. These ‘bad’ workouts are actually the keys to improvement. They can let you know if you’ve pushed too hard or if there is something missing from your training. If every workout goes perfectly, you are most likely not challenging yourself enough to stimulate adaptation. On the other hand, if you never have ‘good’ workouts and you are always struggling, you are probably overdoing it. The success in a ‘bad’ workout is what you are able to take away from it.


The first step to salvaging a workout is to know what the purpose is. If you know the purpose of the session, you can adjust the workout and still get the appropriate training stimulus. This also helps you set realistic expectations for the session.

If your coach assigns you an endurance session and you are trying to hit race pace, you will inevitably be discouraged. Most likely you are going into that session with a lot more fatigue than you would have on race day. A race pace effort is unrealistic and inappropriate in terms of your overall training plan.

Alternately, if your workout assignment is a speed session and you are not allowing the appropriate recovery between intervals, you are setting yourself up for failure. Is the purpose to run very fast, or is the purpose to practice running fast while fatigued? In the first case, you may choose to decrease the intensity or increase duration of your recovery interval so that you can make the work interval. In the second case, you may just have to let go of pace goals and focus on working through the difficulty and run as fast as you can as the fatigue builds.

Understanding the purpose of these sessions ahead of time will give you more power when having to make mid-workout decisions. Remember, your coach has reasons for what and when they prescribe different sessions. If you are unsure of the purpose of an upcoming workout, ask your coach. If you are following a plan without a coach and the workout does not state a purpose, it may take a little more research on your part but the extra effort will result in better training.


The second step is to adjust your mindset. We live in a world of technology and it is easy to get tied to a certain number of miles, pace, heart rate, etc. Sometimes the best thing to do is to unplug and just move. This goes back to understanding the purpose of the workout and letting go of the numbers in place of focusing on the intensity and training stimulus. Becoming in tune with your perceived exertion becomes very important in these instances.

While you may not want to believe it, in training the numbers can lie and your body does not know how fast or far you travelled, it only knows how hard you worked and for how long. Sometimes, letting go of the data and focusing on your perceived exertion can give you the same (and sometimes better) training stimulus as if you hit every pace or wattage perfectly.

Prepare to Work

The third step in salvaging a workout is to leave your ego and focus on the work. There is  nothing more damaging to your performance than a bad attitude and self-deprecating internal conversations.  Remember, training is the investment. No one cares if you ran a 20-minute 5K in training. What matters is the work you do and how you take that to race day. When you struggle through a tough session and get it done, you are gaining so much more than if you just breezed through every workout. Embrace the suffering and you will be stronger mentally come race day.


Finally, you may need to learn to just accept that sometimes it isn’t going to happen. Whether it is fatigue, nutrition, outside stress, just listen to your body and learn from it. Ask yourself why you were not able to perform today. Are your expectations too high? Have you been pushing too long without recovery? Is work or relationship stress taking a toll? Did you fuel properly? Are you fighting illness? If you can identify the reason for the poor performance, then you can adjust your schedule (or expectations) so you can continue to improve at a realistic rate.

When you come to the conclusion that something bigger than just a hard session is going on, then you have to make the decision to continue or bag the workout completely. If you are the type of athlete that recovers better through active recovery, you may decide to turn the workout into an easy recovery session and focus on your mechanics. However, if you recover better with absolute rest, you may choose to stop the workout completely and head home for some passive recovery (massage, hot/cold bath, compression, sleep).  

Remember, there is no such thing as a failed workout. I always tell my athletes that a ‘bad’ workout means good data. It’s what you do with the information that makes the difference.

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