Bad workouts and poor races: we all have them and we always will. As a coach I no longer fret about the occasional flat session - instead, I see them as learning opportunities. Let's look at the main reasons for bad workouts and, more importantly, what to do about them.
Workouts in our weaker areas are where we are more likely to struggle. For example, I’m more of a speedster whereas my training partner is more of an endurance monster. So, when we do workouts at 5K pace, I’m usually the one who has the ‘good’ session. However, when we do longer tempo runs, he leaves me behind. At first, I was frustrated because we both have the same race times. But I learned that it really came down to our physiological and psychological differences. I now accept the workouts that are me weakness are more likely to be 'bad' ones. ('Bad' is a relative term. In this case, I mean that I struggle to hit the paces which I would expect based on my fitness level.)
This subtle understanding of your body's strength and weaknesses can take the pressure off every workout and make you more accepting of the times when training feels tougher.
I’m amazed at how upset runners get when a workout goes poorly when there’s clearly a valid reason for it. For example, let’s say you have an important deadline at work but your plan says to do a 30-minute tempo run. You try to squeeze in the workout at lunchtime, but it doesn’t go as well as hoped. Anyone can see that your effort was compromised by work stress, but you’re likely to get worried about your ‘bad’ workout and let it affect your confidence. We tend to separate life stress from training stress, but they’re all part of one big stress pie, and you can tolerate only so much of it.
The same goes for environmental conditions. If it’s hot, humid or both, your workouts will be compromised. How often do you still hope for a great session even though it’s hot? This is setting yourself up for disappointment. Instead, adjust your expectations and use the ‘bad’ workout as an incentive to build your determination.
Recovery often plays a role in bad workouts. When a session doesn’t go well, look at the few days preceding it. Were you simply not recovered? Again, this is where being a slave to a training plan can hurt us. Your training plan should be a flowing schedule, where you’re constantly moving things around to make sure the body’s stress/rest cycle is obeyed. Be open to the possibility that what you think is enough recovery sometimes just isn’t. In those cases, allow yourself another day or two of recovery after the workout so that you’re back on form.
Also, it’s important to acknowledge that the body has an ebb and flow which we don’t quite understand. Some days you just feel 'off’. As hard as it is to accept a bad workout or race when there are valid reasons, it is doubly challenging when there appears to be no reason at all. Don’t invest in it or over-think it. Just move on.