Quick rule of thumb: If you have roughly equivalent numbers of workouts that go well and workouts that are a bust, then you’re doing pretty well. Workouts are supposed to be challenging enough to force your body to adapt…that’s the only way to improve. Remember, too, that like any other training day, a workout day is subject to a whole host of variables that can impact your performance. What we all need is a playbook for how to salvage the day and still get quality out of the training. First, let me define what I mean by “workout.”
Workout [wurk-out] noun: A structured regime of physical exercise.
When I say “workout,” I mean anytime you have specific pace and distance targets, like intervals, fartleks, tempos, or paced long runs. Easy runs aren’t in scope here.
Recognize when you are having a bad workout. I generally give myself some leeway on the first split at pace, so if you miss your first mile pace or interval target, don’t throw in the towel. But, if you find that you keep missing your splits, or you have to sprint at the end of each mile/interval to stay on target, or if you just have to put in more effort than expected, it’s time to shift to plan B.
Why do workouts go bad? Any of a number of variables can be impacting your performance on that day. A bad workout doesn’t mean that you aren’t fit enough to reach your goal. It might mean that you need more sleep, a better nutrition plan, or that you’re overworking yourself on planned easy days. For whatever reason, use the “bad” workout as a reminder that everyone needs to lower the intensity to stay healthy from time-to-time. But on that day, you can still adjust to get in a quality run.
Approach 1: Smaller Chunks. This is my most common approach when a tempo run isn’t going according to plan. Let’s say that my plan is to run 6 miles at half marathon pace, but I am struggling to hit the target pace for the first 2 miles. At that point, I’d plan to split the remaining 4 miles into smaller chunks of 1 or 2 miles, with a recovery interval as in between. That way, I am still giving my legs the intended race-pace stimulus that the workout was supposed to provide. This approach also works well for track workouts. If you need to run, say, 3 x 1600 at a certain pace and the first 2 are a bust, divide the last one into 2 x 800 or 4 x 400 at the same target pace.
Approach 2: Larger Rests. This is the first line of defense for me when I’m running a track or fartlek workout that already has pre-determined recovery intervals. If I’m hitting my splits but feel like it’s harder than it “should be” (this is really subjective), I will increase the recovery interval and still go for the same splits. If that doesn’t work, I’ll then revert to approach 1 and split the intervals or fartlek segments into smaller chunks.
Approach 3: Pace adjustment. This works with any kind of workout, but often it’s the fix for a longer tempo run. If half marathon pace isn’t working that day, drop to marathon pace and finish the planned distance. This way, you still can focus on mentally overcoming not “feeling it” (something important to remember on race day), and still get some quality mileage in.
Approach 4: Switch to Effort. This works for all types of workouts, and sometimes actually leads to running faster when all is said and done. When the first couple of splits aren’t what I want, sometimes I just quit monitoring the splits altogether and run the planned workout distances by effort/feel. Again, this means that you’ll still get the same basic benefits that the workout originally intended at a reflection of your body’s capability for that day. Sometimes the switch to effort leads to a more relaxed runner and therefore an unintended increase in speed.
Approach 5: Just Run Easy. If it’s not going well, just run the planned total distance or planned total minutes at an easy pace. And then get some extra recovery in before your next workout so that you can hit the targets.
Above all, remember that it’s the entire body of work, not a single workout (or even a handful of them) that will dictate your performance on race day. Keep trusting your training on the good days and the bad days.