All is Not Lost! How to avoid turning one tough day of training into many.
'Those' Days. Ugh.
We've all had 'those' days in training. I'm talking about the ones where an effort that should feel like a seven out of ten feels like a solid eleven. The days when we either struggle to hit the planned intensity right from the beginning of the session, or maybe can't hit it at all. Here's the truth about these days. WE ALL HAVE THEM! It doesn't matter if you're a world champion or a newbie, the occasional rough day is going to happen. I want to help you know how to handle them and what to do to keep one rough day from turning into a string of multiple days in a row.
Training is a Practice, Not a Performance
Endurance athletes are generally very motivated people, with a lot of emphasis placed on improving in measurable ways. And these days, there's more ways to measure ourselves than ever. This can easily lead to looking at every training session as a performance, creating a pressure to perform well with a lot of weight placed on 'hitting the numbers'. When things are going well, this isn't such a bad thing. A solid day of training can create satisfaction, self-confidence, some swagger and an emotional high.
But what happens on the days when things don't go so well? When too much weight is placed on performing every day, a single rough workout can can lead to a loss of confidence, self-doubt and emotional lows. It's amazing how many athletes live on this roller coaster of emotion, beating themselves up whenever things don't go to plan. What I've found as an athlete and coach is we're all better off if we learn to shrug off these days. We're not robots; We live dynamic lives. We have emotions, hormones, stress, things that don't always go how we'd like. And no matter what anyone says, much of the human body is still a mystery - especially when it comes to exercise physiology.
Aligning the Stars
As much as we can plan our lives and set up our training for success, here's a partial list of things that can affect a training session:
Sleep quality & quantity
Recovery from previous day(s) training
Yesterday was leg day at the gym
Two days ago was leg day at the gym
Nutrition during / prior to a training session
Ambient temperature and/or weather
Engagement / excitement level about training session
Distractions or interruptions
Number of 'road blocks' prior to a session
Competing priorities causing friction
Previous experiences (good or bad) with a particular workout
Power meter out of calibration
Incorrect training targets (power, pace, etc)
Training out of order (big endurance or tempo days prior to high intensity days)
As we can see, this is a big list of things to keep dialed in order for training to consistently go well. I'm sure you can even think of others for your self and your own experiences. Most of these are usually in our control, but that's not always the case. If we agree that we're not robots, we can quickly see how there's occasionally going to be a day when we just can't 'hit the numbers'. And this is OK!!! In fact, it's not only OK, it's to be expected if we're training consistently and challenging ourselves.
Don't Always 'Push Through' It
While there is benefit in occasionally training while fatigued (functional overreaching), this isn't what we're talking about here. We're talking about the days where the planned session isn't possible without significant struggle. In my own training over the last twenty years, I usually have one day ever month or two where planned session just isn't going to happen. On these days, I simply cut things short and turn it into a short, easy Zone 1 recovery session (1 hour max ride or 30 minute max run or swim). When we're facing a physical struggle, the less we try to 'push through' on days when the body simply isn't there, the better. I've learned the shorter and easier we can make these days, the higher the likelihood to bounce right back and be ready for high-quality training the next day. Straining our way through these rough days creates way more residual fatigue and soreness, and typically derails the following day's training, too. One important thing to note is that these days may be warning signs of an impending illness. Forcing through them can be the difference between a sniffle we can fight off and a full blown cold. Listen to your body!
While we don't always need to pinpoint the exact reason for a rough day, it's helpful to separate out a physical issue from one of motivation. While I don't recommend pushing through physical struggle, often a lack of motivation can be beaten by simply getting going. It's surprising how often these sessions turn around and end well. This can especially be true if we have a little baggage with a particular workout, either because it's not a natural strength or it hasn't gone well in the past (all the more reason to do it). And just like some days when our bodies aren't there, some days there simply isn't the mental or emotional energy to complete a workout. Maybe we had a terrible day at work, maybe we're dealing with family stress, the list is almost endless. The truth is, challenging our bodies takes a fair amount of mental focus, and the body can only handle so much combined stress, mental and physical.
Learning Athletic Maturity
'Pushing through' too much fatigue or lack of energy is often a recipe to turn one off day into two (or more) low-quality training days. Mature athletes recognize this and are unemotional about 'pulling the plug' on a session that's clearly not going well. They don't beat themselves up over it. They simply do a quick inventory (mental, physical, life) to see if something specific led to that session. Like it or not, there may not always be a clear answer. Again, this is OK!
And that's the real message here. You're OK! Don't wrap up your self-worth or identity in the outcome of every single training session. That roller coaster of excessive pressure is not one you want to be on. This is a practice, like learning an instrument or a martial art. The most consistent improvement and sustainable gains come from embracing the fluidity of the training process. Every day is not going to be a breakthrough performance; in fact it can't be. Progress comes from consistently following a well laid plan, knowing when to push hard and when to 'pull the plug' on occasion. Once we accept this, we can take a lot of pressure off ourselves. Without unnecessary added pressure, training becomes way more enjoyable and these occasional off days won't be so stressful - or maybe won't even be stressful at all. This is a beautiful process. Enjoy it!
Thanks to Speed Science athletes Traci and Rebecca for the photos.