Bad workout? Move forward and refocus on the next run

Not all training runs are going to be perfect. How can we deal with the frustration of being defeated by a workout, and re-focus on our next run?

Last night I went for a hard run. It was a workout I had been thinking about for a few days, because I knew it was going to be bloody tough. 

Six kilometres up a mountain road near my house in Wollongong, with an approximate elevation gain of about 400 metres. I was aiming to maintain an average pace slightly faster than 4 minutes per kilometre.  

This was a workout designed to build strength. And, in theory, it’s a good workout. It makes you hurt. 

I’d done the same workout two weeks earlier, and when I reached the top, I let out a massive roar. It was an unconscious, instinctive whoop; partly fuelled by a sense of accomplishment, and partly fuelled by sheer exhaustion. 

Now, I was set to attempt it again. My coach had set an ambitious target for this run. He’d run the same stretch in under 24 minutes and he wanted me to do the same. 

I believe I’m capable. I’ve got a good base of fitness with some consistent marathon training under my belt since February, so I wanted to get out there and give it my best effort. 

Unfortunately, things didn’t go to plan… 

The steepest, toughest part of the run is from about the 500 metre mark until about 2.3 kms. Going up that stretch, my mind was racked with self-doubt. My legs felt tired, my lungs were on overdrive, and even my arms were feeling heavy and lactic. The notion that I could stop at the halfway point crept into the periphery of my mind, and when I didn’t squash that negative thought instantly, I knew I was in trouble.   

I’d given myself an out 

And when you’re suffering, feeling the pain of the climb, any excuse to stop seems like an attractive option.

So, at the 3 km mark, I pulled the pin. I slowed to a jog, then a walk, and gasped air into my lungs as I tried to recover. 

The feeling of defeat is a cruel one. And on this occasion, it set in fast. I was disappointed with my effort. I was bummed that I couldn’t find the physical and mental strength to carry-on and grind through the workout, even if it meant slowing the pace somewhat. 

Almost immediately after the 3 km mark, there’s a short section of the road where it levels out, and you get a reprieve. For 400 metres, you can recover. I knew it was up ahead, literally just around the corner, and I still bailed. 

Owning the defeat and salvaging the session

I can search for excuses. For instance, it was still pretty humid when I set out, and there was a headwind battering against me as I climbed. But as runners, we can’t control the weather or shy away from bad conditions. 

This defeat was on me. I quit on the workout. 

As I turned around, and started running downhill, I was feeling awful. I was disappointed, angry and frustrated at myself. I should have continued to fight. (On a side note, it’s funny how short-lived the memories of physical pain and exhaustion are!)  

Halfway down, I tried to change my mind-frame. I had to. I couldn’t run home and sit in my apartment all night feeling sorry for myself. 

Yes, the workout — as planned — was over. But the session was still salvageable. I still had some daylight and I was still on the mountain. I was outside, in the fresh air, with the beautiful forest on either side of me. So I turned around and started to climb again. 

In the end, I ran the equivalent of the 6 kms I was meant to (3 km up + 2 down, followed by 2 up + 1 down, and then one final kilometre of climbing). 

A mental victory pulled from the wreckage

In a sense, I was defeated, but I didn’t give up entirely. And that’s hugely important from a mental standpoint. It’s what I’ll take away from the workout. 

No, I didn’t set a personal record. And no, I didn’t prove that I was capable of hitting the ambitious target set by my coach. That’ll be for another day. 

What I did manage to do was adapt on the fly. I found the energy and strength to persevere on a different course. And I finished in a better frame of mind that I would have if I’d simply thrown in the towel. 

I’m not going to pretend it’s been easy to stay motivated during the coronavirus pandemic. Running has been a wonderful escape; a way to maintain a degree of sanity and normalcy amidst a period of great uncertainty and tension.

But hitting sessions and workouts with the same fire and intensity you would, if a race was around the corner, has been a struggle. 

Nevertheless, it’s important to keep on trying. 

I’ll tackle the climb again. Hopefully the legs are fresher, the mind more prepared, and the mountain will seem like a molehill. 

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