When to tough out a workout and when to skip it

Photo by Joshua Simpson

It’s a question all runners face when the mind is tired, the legs are heavy and a scheduled session is feeling like one huge struggle: should I suck it up and keep going, change the workout or just call it a day?

In a ‘no pain, no gain’ world, that can be a difficult question. But getting the answer right is vital if you want to train successfully, says Pete Pfitzinger, an exercise physiologist and Olympic marathoner. ‘There’s a fine line between pushing hard to succeed and setting yourself back,’ he says. This is especially true in a month like ‘Monster March’, when those training for spring marathons are working through the toughest weeks in their schedules.

Gina Procaccio, a US college running coach, agrees that knowing when to back off is important. In her estimation, too many athletes just continue pushing until they bury themselves. ‘It becomes counterproductive at that point,’ she says.

If you do skip or modify a workout, it doesn’t mean you’ve failed. Running coach Jay Johnson recommends a mindset that encourages positive thinking: Tell yourself, ‘Over the course of a month, or four months, or a year, I’ve done my training 90 per cent of the time.’ Taking a long-term view can allow you the flexibility to make sure your training stays on track and is productive. Here are some signs to help you make wise decisions before, during and after your workouts.

1/ Before a workout

The unpredictable problems of daily life –_such as work stress, lack of sleep, sickness – sometimes make it obvious even before the workout starts that your session is going to be a tough one.

Green light

In situations when a stressful day coincides with your workout, but you’re well rested and haven’t had a string of hard days, try the workout as planned, says Ben Rosario, a US Olympic trials marathon qualifier. Often, he says, ‘You do the workout, and it feels so much better just to have it done.’

Amber light

If you’re too tired to do a workout on the day it’s scheduled, Pfitzinger says you ought to postpone it and see if you feel better in the coming days. Waiting that crucial day or two allows you to get more benefit from the delayed session than you would by running at a slower pace on the assigned day. Rosario recommends trying to plan at the beginning of the week if you need to rearrange your workout days, rather than waiting until the day of the session to make the call. In the event you do move a workout, check how close it will be to other hard training days; you may need to drop a session.

Red light

If you are starting to feel unwell or you sense an injury beginning to develop, it’s better not to attempt the session. ‘The benefit of any single workout is not as great as the downside of missing multiple days of training,’ says Pfitzinger. If you’re struggling because of long hours at work or a consistent lack of quality sleep, Johnson advises caution as well. If you don’t feel you’re ready to do 90 per cent of the workout as planned, skip it – and don’t look back with regret. There will be other days.

READ: How to decide when to skip a race

2/ During the workout

Some days you won’t see any obvious red flags heading into a workout, but you may still struggle to hit times that would normally be in your range.

Green light

If you’re not hitting your planned pace but you’re still within five per cent (21 seconds per mile at seven/min/mile pace, for example), Rosario says it’s better to push through. ‘The truth is, the race hurts and sometimes you’ve got to hurt in a workout,’ says Rosario. Pfitzinger agrees that there are race-day benefits to toughing out a difficult workout. ‘If you are tired and push hard and achieve your planned training paces, you learn that you can overcome adversity,’ he says.

Amber light

Even when you can’t complete the planned workout, modifying it can be an effeective way to deal with a rough day while still getting in a beneficial session. Switching to a slower pace is an option, but Procaccio recommends first trying to cut the reps into pieces. ‘If you’re doing 400s and you can’t get through them, try to run that same pace and do 2 X 200m,’ she says. Pfitzinger also thinks it is better to maintain goal pace by shortening your reps, duration or distance. ‘A 30-minute tempo run can become a 20-minute tempo run, or could be broken into two 15-minute segments,’ he says.

Red light

If breaking up the workout doesn’t help and you’re still well off pace, call it quits. ‘If you’re just flogging yourself, you’re not really getting anything out of it,’ says Procaccio. A few other circumstances should signal a quick end to a training session. Pfitzinger says it’s time to stop the workout if you start to have trouble breathing or you become light-headed. Johnson adds that you should abandon the session if you feel any sharp muscular pain.

READ: 10 indicators that you may need to take a rest day

3/ After the workout

If you completed a workout but struggled during it, use it as a chance to review your overall training plan to see if it needs to be adjusted.

Green light

If you modified your workout and then finished it feeling strong, this may allow you to recover from a rough day in time to stay on your training schedule. Still, Procaccio says it’s preferable to err on the side of caution. ‘It’s better to be 10 per cent undertrained than one per cent overtrained,’ she says.

Amber light

If you find yourself frequently struggling to complete workouts, it may be time to reexamine your training plan. Johnson says that you should aim to finish each effort feeling that you could have done one or two more reps. If workouts are leaving you as exhausted as a race does more than once every six to eight weeks, you may need to include more rest days between hard efforts.

Red light

When you modify a workout that would normally pose no problems, but you still struggle to finish it, Rosario recommends cutting back on your training to help ensure that you’re recovering properly between sessions. ‘You can’t be so naive as to tell yourself that you cut out that last repeat so you should be fine,’ he says. Cutting back on your training volume or taking extra rest during the three days following a rough workout will help make sure you recover completely in time for the next run.

READ: 9 recovery methods to use after your run